/ 18 March 2021

Senseless killings of activists, including Fikile Ntshangase, were preventable – UN report

Fikile Ntshangase
Gunned down: Fikile Ntshangase, 65, was a vocal opponent of plans to extend the Somkhele coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal. (Oupa Nkosi)

The violent death of KwaZulu-Natal environmental defender Fikile Ntshangase  — and the deaths of many other human rights activists — could have been prevented, had governments across the globe done their jobs to protect their lives. 

This conclusion was drawn by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, which published a report this month revealing that 1 323 activists were killed worldwide between 2015 and 2019. 

A further 100 human rights defenders were murdered between 1 January 2019 and 30 June 2020 in just 10 member states, the report, titled Final Warning: Death threats and killings of human rights defenders, found. Latin America and the Caribbean account for 933 of the 1 323 deaths — more than 70%. 

Using Ntshangase as a case study, Mary Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur who compiled the report, found similarities between the events surrounding her death and those of defenders in other countries. 

Ntshangase, the deputy chair person of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo), was shot and killed metres away from her grandson in October 2020 inside her Ophondweni home. Community and Mcejo members, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian during our visit to Ophondweni, described Ntshangase as a fierce opponent of the expansion of the local 22 000-hectare Somkhele Coal Mine. 

Her opposition was fuelled by the alleged shocking pollution in the area that coats rainwater tanks with a soot-like substance; remnants of the mined coal that lingers in the air and is a health hazard. 

The UN report comes amid a peace accord signed in Somkhele last month between the mine, unions, traditional leadership in the area, and the Somkhele branch of Mcejo, among other interested groups. This accord is to bring about peace following “several months of tensions that culminated in the murder of Mrs Fikile Ntshangase … and honours Mrs Ntshangase and condemns all violence and intimidation”.

Petmin, the holding company for mining operations in the area, offered a R20 000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest of Ntshangase’s killers. No arrests have been made. 

The UN report states that Ntshangase had received several death threats since June 2019, which she reported to the police. 

“Such murders of defenders are often preceded by the sorts of threats directed at Ms Ntshangase. Sometimes the threats are direct, sometimes indirect. Some are targeted at specific individuals. These threats are often intended to intimidate, silence and stop human rights defenders from carrying out their work. There is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders.” 

Zara Alvarez’s death is also in the report. An activist in the Philippines-based human rights organisation Karapatan, she received her first death threat in July 2019. 

“In April 2020, a text message was sent to Ms Alvarez, purportedly from state security forces, harassing her after she had distributed rice to impoverished members of her community during lockdowns.  

“On 17 August 2020, she was shot dead on the street in Bacolod City. She had previously been red-tagged and de facto named as a terrorist by the Department of Justice,” the report states. Red-tagging is a Filipino government tactic used to brand people as communists, to justify the abuse of their rights. The Philippines has the third-highest number of activist deaths: 173 between 2015 and 2019. 

(John McCann/M&G)

Lawlor concludes: “States can and should intervene to prevent killings by responding more effectively to threats against human rights defenders. Such interventions include taking action to stop vilification and threats aimed at defenders, making them more vulnerable to attacks. 

“Businesses should also intervene when threats are made against defenders, to prevent them from escalating into attacks.”

Nathi Kunene, business development manager at Tendele Mining, told the M&G that the company did not bribe or offer jobs to anyone to sign the peace accord. There are more than 20 signatories. 

“The peace accord has been signed by individuals who, together, represent the vast majority of the 220 000 community members with an interest in the mine’s future, including traditional structures, elected local authority representatives, consultative forums and the three representative unions at the mine,” Kunene said.