For decades, the unjust deaths of activists has been in the news or heard about in our communities and social circles. In 2019 alone, 212 defenders of the environment were murdered around the world, with mining the deadliest sector.
These deaths have become so frequent that often they go under the radar of the mainstream media. However, the murder of KwaZulu-Natal activist Fikile Ntshangase, 65, has made many pause, and sparked as much anger as it has sadness — and concern for the future.
Fikile Ntshangase was the vice-chairperson of a subcommittee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo). She took on the massive challenge of opposing the proposed expansion of the Tendele Coal mine at Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal, which would not only cause massive environmental destruction, but also require the relocation of 21 families from their ancestral land. She approached this as she did everything in her life, with unshakable courage.
In the days before Ntshangase’s murder, Tendele Coal was pushing Mcejo to withdraw its court challenge of the expansion of its coal mine at Somkhele, even though the company had failed to address the community concerns raised in the court case.
Many of her fellow subcommittee members signed this “agreement” without a mandate from Mcejo, Ntshangase did not. In fact she had intended to write an affidavit, testifying that subcommittee members had offered her a payment of R350 000 in return for her signature.
She declined this cheap offer and in her own words explained her decision: “I refused to sign. I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people.”
This unfortunately became a reality when she was shot in her own home by four men and left to die, days after making this statement. Ntshangase’s environmental and social justice work has long been an inspiration to so many of her family, her friends and the activist community at large.
Her legacy will surely continue to inspire environmental justice activists for time to come. Her strength in the face of adversity has now become a symbol of courage for young activists, even those who did not have the privilege of knowing this extraordinary woman. Although she is no longer with us we look to her example and take what we have learnt from her into our own practice.
Tragically, this reality is faced by many activists — not only here in South Africa, but all over the world. We see similar incidents in Nigeria, where environmental pollution has been rising and continues to arise from foreign Big Oil prospecting and exploration in the Niger Delta — a region with a steadily growing population, estimated at more than 30-million people (this being the count in 2005).
We see how this injustice has not only negatively affected the area’s biodiversity, but also plagued local communities with major health issues. We see how activists who are resisting these massively destructive efforts by the Big Oil exploiters are met with violence and threats to their lives and those of their family members; so much so that, for years, many were too fearful to even speak out against this because they feared the consequences.
We also see this outside the continent, for example, in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, where anger and alarm has spread among socio-environmental justice activists, as well as the indigenous rights activists. These activists are faced with displacement, violence and threats to their lives as they stand up to the massive deforestation taking place and against the murders of indigenous peoples.
This attack to the rainforest, which provides between 9% and 16% of our oxygen on Earth devastates the natural biodiversity, destroying the habitats of innumerable species and accelerating extinction. It also destroys the livelihoods and way of life of the almost 400 indigenous communities who live there, and depend on the forest to sustain their communities.
These harsh realities, while becoming a regular occurrence, must never be accepted.
We must not reach a point where we are not enraged by this injustice. Many have said that they won’t lose that rage, but they are beginning to lose hope and the courage to fight.
This is the intention of those waging environmental destruction. They believe that by threatening us that they might silence us. They believe that by targeting the under-represented — community members in under-resourced communities, and Indigenous peoples, who have for decades been ignored by governments and the media — that their actions will not be made public. They believe that taking the life of someone who is speaking out against injustice and corruption will make everyone abandon the fight.
We can not let that happen.
It is our duty to continue to take up the struggles for justice that those who were taken from us were not able to complete. We must continue to stand up and speak out for those who are unable to do so for themselves, and we need to do so together.
There may be moments when we feel as if all hope is lost; when all struggle seems futile. We must take a step back, catch our breath and remember that those who were unjustly taken cannot have died in vain and those who will inherit the Earth are depending on us. Our courage, our hope and our willpower are our strongest weapons. You are not alone in the fight for justice: together we can do anything.