While environmental activists in South Africa are hunted and killed like common thieves, the government remains tight-lipped, timid not to dabble with the wealth that is scooped out of the bowels of the harmless earth.
As mining companies decimate the environment, in the process the lives of indigenous people, in the hunt for minerals, human rights groups in South Africa and Africa at large, want authorities to be more proactive in the protection of lives and resources for posterity.
The indifference of the authorities is causing conflict and death even in the remotest villages on the continent. The indifference is stoking anger and conflict as foreign firms tighten their grip on Africa’s wealth.
In South Africa, the recent killing of environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase after her refusal to withdraw legal challenges to existing and future mining operations places the mining industry in South Africa at the centre-stage of long-running conflicts between treasure hunters and human rights defenders.
Human Rights Watch, an international human rights non-governmental organisation, has raised the red flag about the indignities visited on indigenous populations vis-à-vis the callous response to environmental pollution.
“While shocking, the killing of environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase is not surprising. Environmental defenders such as Ntshangase have long faced threats for voicing their concerns about mining activity on nearby communities,” reports HRW in the November edition.
The tussle between the government and mining companies on one side, and environmental rights activists on the other, escalated to “conflict” levels from 2018 when community activists raised concerns about sustained threats by the government and mining companies in Somkhele, a town near a coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal province.
The activists had been ‘threatened, physically attacked and their property damaged after speaking out about the health risks of coal mining. Two years later, on October 22, Ntshangase was gunned down in her home. No arrests have been made.”
The story of Ntshangase is told many times over in Africa where foreign firms are scrambling for the continent’s wealth, leading to the perception that minerals are a curse.
In Kenya, the displacement of over 3,000 residents in Kwale to make way for the mining of titanium has since 2006 frequent conflicts between indigenous resource owners and mining companies. The government often scoffs at calls to relook at the mining laws to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people.
The horror stories associated with mineral wealth become even more horrifying in South Sudan oilfields where the government and foreign oil drilling companies do not care a tad about the impact of environmental degradation on water, food and air pollution.
Early this year, The Washington Post, citing research findings, reported: “The oil industry in South Sudan has left a landscape pocked with hundreds of open waste pits, the water and soil contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals… The reports also describe alarming birth defects, miscarriages and other health problems among residents of the region and soldiers who have been stationed there.”
Despite protests, Juba and oil drilling companies have ignored calls to ensure the safety of communities in oil producing states: Abyei, Bar-el-Ghazal, Unity and Upper Nile.
The narrative does not change in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana’s Kumasi goldfields, Nigeria oilfields, Tanzania’s Mtwara coalfields and many more.
South Africa remains in the eye of a storm regarding human rights violations by state agencies and private mining companies.
The killing of Ntshangase, who was a vice-chair of a subcommittee of Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, a community-based organisation that speaks up for people affected by opencast mining, highlights the callousness of treasure hunt in Africa, according to HRW.
It says, “The group has filed legal challenges against a planned expansion of the nearby coal mine. Community members have publicly expressed concern about how the mine affects their health and livelihoods and 19 families have resisted being displaced from their ancestral land for the mine expansion.”
The government did not heed the cries of the poor. South Africa is the world’s seventh-largest coal producer.
“The absence of effective government oversight has allowed mining to harm the rights of communities across the country in various ways. It has depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil and water, destroyed arable land and ecosystems, and often resulted in displacement and inappropriate grave relocation practices,” says the HRW report.
In a scathing report, the South Africa Human Rights Commission found that “the mining sector is riddled with challenges related to land, housing, water and the environment.”
Consequently, people living in communities affected by mining activities across South Africa have mobilised to press the government and companies to respect and protect community members’ rights from the potentially serious environmental, social, economic, and health-related harm of mining.
HRW points out, “In many cases, such activism has been met with harassment, intimidation or violence. In our 2019 report, published jointly with GroundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights and Earthjustice, we documented how activists in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks or property damage that they believe is a consequence of their activism. Most of these cases had not been investigated by police and the investigations into the killings or attacks we documented are moving very slowly.”
It cites further the killing of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe at his home in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape province in March 2016. “He and other community members had raised concerns about displacement and destruction of the environment from a titanium mine proposed by the Australian company Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources. No suspects have been arrested in his killing.”
Investigations by the human rights groups also found that government officials or companies sometimes deliberately created or exploited community divisions or closed their eyes to intimidation and abuse between community members, to isolate or weaken critics.
Tendele has sought to brand community members opposing its operations as anti-development or acting against the community interest, putting them at further risk of being attacked or threatened by those benefiting from the mine.
In March 2018, a community member from Somkhele reported: “The mine is not directly threatening people, but they will [intimidate] their employees by telling them that they will lose their jobs if the activism continues.”
Earlier that year, the company’s management had circulated a memorandum to employees warning of layoffs, blaming “a few community members [who] … choose to stand in the way of future development and huge economic and social investment and upliftment in the community.”
Indigenous communities should not have to endure threats and danger to their very lives for defending their right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live on their ancestral land, says HRW.
- A Tell report