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Women environmental activists often pay the ultimate price

Extractive industries, which favour men in employment, have long been linked to the systemic economic disenfranchisement of women, and an increased reliance on men. The exacerbating power dynamic is responsible for increased incidents of domestic violence, transactional sex, forced prostitution, HIV transmission and acts of violence against women. Rural indigenous women increasingly find themselves subjected to violence as a means to suppress activism and discourage other environmental activists from coming forward.

The tragic murder of environmental activist Mam’ Fikile Ntshangase in her Mtubatuba home on the night of 22 October 2020 has shaken her organisation, the Mfolozi Community Justice Environmental Organisation (MCEJO), and environmental organisations across the country. Hailed as an environmental human rights defender (EHRD), Mam’ Ntshangase dared to be vocal against the destructive expansion of Somkhele mine. She joins a long list of women and environmental defenders who have globally been subjected to intimidation, rape, imprisonment, torture and murder. 

Her murder not only illustrates the precarious nature of environmental activists in our own country, but also the vulnerable nature of undertaking environmental activism as women in a country that has expressed contempt for us through numerous acts of violence. Women are subject to acts of violence from our partners and in the line of duty. Mam’ Ntshangase’s gender identity cannot be separated from the work she did, as women are often disproportionately impacted by the environmental destruction caused by extractive industries, and solely bear the responsibility of creating social cohesion in the wake of these devastating events. 

In the months leading up to her death, Mam’ Ntshangase was subjected to psychological abuse and threats of physical violence against her and her family.  Former MCEJO member Sabelo Dladla recounts Mam’ Ntshangase’s discomfort at the news of her grandson being accosted by disgruntled community members, who interrogated him about her on his way to the store. The experience left both her and her grandson startled and in fear of their lives. She experienced paranoia and anxiety when she began noticing food, clothing and other possessions missing from her home. She began to contemplate whether someone had broken into her home and even suspected witchcraft. Dladla was forced to leave the organisation after increasing threats of violence resulted in him, his mother and his niece being attacked in their home by two gunmen.

These events highlight the precarious nature of being a female environmental activist, or mere association with an environmental activist in South Africa.  These realities are documented in  an IUNC report, Gender-based Violence and Environmental linkages: the violence of inequality, which found that women activists experience increased levels of gender-based violence aimed at suppressing our power and eroding our credibility and status in communities. 

Recognising that the culture of violence in South Africa has forced women to live in a state of hypervigilance, we cannot simply label the murder of Mam’ Ntshangase as an attack on an environmental activist; this was an act of violence against a woman. It drives home the reality that gender-based violence extends beyond the home, into communities and in work. The violent murder of Mam’ Ntshangase is not the first of its kind, and will most certainly not be the last. In the weeks since her murder, environmental activist Sis Nonhle Mbuthuma of the Amadiba Crisis Committee in eXolobeni has expressed fear about the death threats she continues to receive. These threats cannot be taken lightly, as fellow environmental activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was killed in 2016.  

The culture of violence against women is further entrenched by those mining executives who often turn a blind-eye to aggressors acting in their interests, and local councillors operating in cahoots with mines to ensure their demands are fulfilled. Aggressors are emboldened by political figures who view the violence committed against these communities as legitimate.

The women of Mfolozi and eXolobeni do not feel safe approaching law enforcement as their aggressors will be treated with impunity, exposing them to further harassment, and driving more potential women activists into the shadows. But these women continue to assert their right to an environment that is free from harm, and their right to protest. They deserve our support and protection.  

In response to the resolution of the Gender-based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) Declaration made as a part of the GBVF 2018 summit,  President Cyril Ramaphosa has launched a private sector-led, multi-sectoral GBVF response fund. In the absence of gender-inclusive policies that empower women and condemn violence against activists, the fight against GBV cannot fully be realised.

Greenpeace Africa calls on the president to;

  1. Place pressure on the South African Police Services to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of Mam’ Ntshangase’s death so that those responsible are held accountable.
  2. Acknowledge the threat of violence posed by corporations against women activists, and launch an inquiry into the source and resolutions in this regard, and
  3. Counter the culture of impunity towards aggressors by creating a policy for the protection of women environmental and human rights defenders.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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