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

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Magashule snubs former presidents Mbeki and Motlanthe

Magashule fails to meet former presidents Mbeki and Motlanthe as he runs out of options

‘Suspicious’ tech company EOH must pay back millions

EOH allegedly inflated prices of Microsoft licences, which could have been bought by the defence department for a third of the cost

More top stories

SIU targets 15 in master of high court

As the Special Investigating Unit starts pushing for criminal and disciplinary cases, officials in the master’s offices start revealing crucial evidence

Rhodes Memorial Fire: a week of devastation, loss and heartache

Students, alumni and staff share their memories and thoughts after blaze leaves a path of devastation at the UCT and its Jagger Reading Room

Cape fire devastation reinforces consequences of defence budget cuts

All the available resources from the private sector needed to be exhausted before the Air Force could be called in to assist in dousing in the flames

The perverse irony of the Super League-haunted semi-finals

The welcome ring of the Champions League anthem next week will be tainted by developments off the pitch

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…