The gunning down of a “formidable and courageous anchor”, Fikile Ntshangase, won’t stop people in Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal, from fighting against open-pit mining that destroys their health and livelihoods.
Their 63-year-old leader, who they called Mam’Ntshangase, was shot several times on Thursday evening while her 11-year-old grandson was in the house.
Her supporters believe Mam’Ntshangase, who was the deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), was killed because of her campaign to stop mining in the area, a contentious issue that has divided people living there.
Medical Nziba said: “I am numb from the pain, especially because those who killed her did so in front of her grandson. All we want is for the police to do their jobs and arrest the killers.
“But this won’t stop us from continuing with our struggle to fight against mining on our land. Our resolve is based on honouring a strong woman; an anchor of our community.”
Her views were echoed by Kirsten Youens, an attorney who has been involved with the Somkhele residents in the long-running legal battle against Tendele Coal Mining, the owner of Somkhele Mine.
A case is before the Supreme Court of Appeal to overturn a 2018 high court judgment, which refused to interdict mining in Somkhele. The interdict sought to stop the expansion of the open-pit mine, one of the country’s largest, close to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park. The mining licence covers 22 000 hectares.
“She [Mam’Ntshangase] was a formidable woman, very courageous. She spoke the truth and highly valued the truth,” said Youens. “I have so many images of her in my head of her standing up in front of communities and the DMR [department of mineral resources] and making her statements loudly.
“With all the volatility in the area over the past few months that started during the hard lockdown, she was always there for the people who were being intimidated and under pressure,” Youens added.
KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbele said a case of murder has been opened at the KwaMsane police station for investigation.
Eastern Cape connection
Another person mourning Mam’Ntshangase’s death is Sibusiso Mqadi, the chairperson of the Eastern Cape-based Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), who said it brought back painful memories.
The committee’s former chairperson, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, was shot dead in March 2016 in the Xolobeni area on the Wild Coast. The ACC has been on the forefront of a long campaign to prevent an Australian company from mining the coastal dunes for titanium.
Mqadi said people were prepared to be killed to prevent operations on their land. “As ACC members, we took a painful resolution that, at the end of the day, they will not kill us all. As Africans, we believe strongly that, when one person is killed, their spirit will live on in those of us still alive.”
He said the committee was arranging for members to go to Somkhele. “Mam’Ntshangase was our comrade, fighting the same battle as us. We will go there to stand in solidarity with our other comrades.”
Lerato Letebele Balendran, the head of communication at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), said they mourn Mam’Ntshangase’s death. The organisation has been admitted as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the Supreme Court of Appeal case to overturn the 2018 Somkhele high court ruling.
“We are angry with the way in which the destruction caused by coal mining divides communities. We are angry with the way in which coal mining companies force individuals in affected communities to choose between money, and the protection of the long-term resilience of the land, water and air on which they depend for their lives and livelihoods,” Balendran said.