/ 7 November 2020

How we braved danger to honour Fikile Ntshangase

Fikile Ntshangase
Gunned down: Fikile Ntshangase was brutally killed

Walking into Fikile Ntshangase’s home on October 27 almost two weeks ago, I unknowingly sat at the spot where she had been gunned down. There was a hole on the floor I had not seen.

“Look down, my son, and see the gaping bullet hole on the floor. This shows that those assassins shot her even after she had fallen,” a family member told me. 

It was at that point that one of our armed protectors broke down in tears, his wail emitting tangible pain from losing someone he considered his mother. It was strange seeing the juxtaposition of a strong Zulu man allowing himself to be vulnerable in front of women sitting flat on the straw mats.

Although the reporting experience was emotionally draining and jarring, the fear of izinkabi (hitmen) was the most palpable. Deciding to travel into one of the most volatile areas in KwaZulu-Natal to tell the story of why Ntshangase was brutally murdered put red-hot targets on my colleague Oupa Nkosi and myself.

Ntshangase, 63, was shot dead on October 22 in Ophondweni, KwaZulu-Natal, metres away from her 13-year-old grandson and his two friends, aged eight and 10, while she sat chopping onions for supper.

She was the deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo), which had resolutely fought against the expansion of Tendele Coal Mining’s operations near the border of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. 

Mcejo’s opposition has fractured the community, with a spate of violence that began in April this year when 19 bullets rained on the home of another anti-mining activist, Tholakele Mthethwa, leading to the October 22 killing of Ntshangase.

The community has been fighting for years to keep the lush beauty of the area pristine, but others desperately need work from the mine and its expansion. 

What was once an ordinary village in which community members herded cattle and ploughed their fields has turned into a Wild West. Men walk around with revolvers holstered to their sides in the area in which they grew up and raised their families.

We knew before we left the comfort of Johannesburg to drive seven hours to KwaZulu-Natal that we could not take our safety for granted. Everyone else in the area was petrified. We had to be too. 

After making several calls to people who cannot be named, we were guaranteed a level of safe passage, which entailed two burly Zulu men who would escort us everywhere. 

They entered the car, genuinely asked us about our families’ wellbeing and respectfully referred to us, as is the nature of rural folk, by our surnames.

Each time Oupa left the car to take pictures, one of the armed men would follow him to stand guard while the photographer did his work. 

After a few repetitions of this exercise, Oupa noticed that one of the men had a gun holstered to his side. 

“Are both these guys armed and protecting us?” Oupa asked when we had a quiet moment. “Yes,” I sheepishly replied, afraid he would be angry that I had kept this vital information from him. 

“Mfowethu, ngesinye isikhathi kulomsebenzi kwamele uthathe uvalo ulilahlele kude. Masisebenze.” Loosely translated, Oupa replied: “My brother, sometimes this job requires you to take your fears and throw them far away. Let’s work.” 

An intricate plan for the sources to arrive at the rendezvous spot was devised and included the use of a trusted driver, our protectors chose. We paid the driver R300 for their assistance; possibly also for their silence and discretion.

The four of us drove to Somkhele and Ophondweni to conduct our arranged interviews, analyse documents and take pictures. There was an urgency and a low level of anxiety as we worked under the pressure of knowing that we could not return the next day to finalise interviews.

The danger was heightened and we had one day to do it all; one shot to tell the story of Ntshangase and a community enveloped by fear and violence linked to the mine.

Last week, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation released its biennial report detailing how 1 166 journalists were killed worldwide since 2006, with 57 dying last year.  

Between 2018 and 2019, the report added, 89 of the killings were recorded “in countries not experiencing armed conflict”, with “fatal attacks” on journalists covering everything from corruption to environmental crimes.   

Granted, the accepted dictum is that journalists tell the story, and should never be it. 

But team Mail & Guardian worked together to produce an important package about a brave woman.