That Australian,” Sibongile Kenneth Sonjica muses, “is killing us with money. He is turning us into dogs. Two dogs can play together nicely, but throw a bone between them and they will fight.”
The 58-year-old Sonjica is a 15-year veteran of Gauteng’s gold mining industry and returned to his Mpondoland birthplace, in the Eastern Cape, after his 1997 retrenchment. His only fond memories of those times are of him in the ring – he was a useful boxer in mine hostel tournaments.
“That Australian” is Mark Caruso, a Perth-based venture capitalist and Executive Chairman of Mineral Commodities (MRC), who is going toe-to-toe with a community opposing a proposed 22-kilometer long and 1.5-kilometer wide strip mine of coastal dune titanium deposits within its midst.
“The mine will destroy the land forever; I know this from working on mines. It will not be possible for the cows to graze, there will be soil erosion and you cannot live close to a mine. I know mines,” says Sonjica.
There is no middle ground between the pro and anti-mining lobbies, this fight is all about the last man standing; there will be no split decision. Titanium is tough, lightweight and has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal. It provides for the demands of the 21st century’s new technologies from the medical and sporting fields through to the aeronautic industries.
Facing off is the Amadiba community who live on communal land with collective agency. It is a land tenure system that has survived such interlopers as Shaka Zulu, British colonialism (Mpondoland was the last territory to be annexed by the British in 1894) and patronizing apartheid-era rural improvement projects that became a catalyst for the Pondo Revolt in the late 1950s.
South African Pulp and Paper Industries (Sappi) misjudged the land arrangement in 1999 when it began to implement a tree planting project by paying some residents a cultivation rental fee. In what became known as the Gum Tree Rebellion, 14 homesteads of those participating in the initiative were razed in two weeks of violence. The community saw neither development value nor any synergy with the multinational’s land use.
Nonhle Mbuthuma, the 38-year-old spokesperson for the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) that opposes the mine, went into hiding following the March 22 killing of the organization’s chairperson Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe.
“My grandfather was a leader during the Pondo Revolt. What I learned from him is that it is very important that if you want to live a better life, you have to protect the land,” says Mbuthuma.
The ACC wants economic development through an eco-tourism model on the economic ethos of a rising tide lifts all boats, allowing for both small-scale farming and the amaMpondo culture to flourish. The Pondoland Centre of Endemism, which will be impacted by any mine operations, is recognized as one of the world’s 235 richest eco-regions.
“People think we are poor. We do not feel we are poor. We feel richer than other people. Here we have land. You can go to other places and people have nothing. We have crops and cattle and bigger plans for tourism. In cities, people are poor. Caruso says we are poor, but he is from the city,” says Siyabonga Ndovela, a 23-year-old supporter of the ACC.
The ACC says the promise of 600 mining jobs will come at the expense of creating a strip of desert stretching between the Mzamba and Mtentu rivers, pollute the marine environment, as well as arable and grazing land far beyond its area of operation, exhaust and choke fresh water sources, displace communities and serve as nothing more than a burial mound for a community.
Zeka Mnyamana is the spokesperson for MRC’s Black Economic Empowerment partner, the Xolobeni Community Empowerment Company (XOLCO). Mbuthuma labels Mnyamana as “a traitor”, as she says he once opposed mining, saying there is no reason why mining and eco-tourism cannot co-exist. “Tourists go to Johannesburg and there are mines there.”
The decades-long struggle against the proposed mine is not without its consequences. The corrosive effect is in the acts of betrayal and alleged murder calcifying positions and redefining relationships into pro or anti-mining camps. It is no glib assessment to say this could emerge into an internecine conflict in its most sincere form – destructive, deadly, among family and inherited by coming generations as blood feuds.
Sinegugu Zukulu, the Eastern Cape Environmental Program Manager for the NGO Conservation South Africa, and originally from Amadiba’s Baleni area, about 15 kilometers inland from the proposed mining site, acts as an ACC advisor.
“The Amadiba are a clan, we are all related,” he says.
His opponent is Zamile Qunya, who head ups XOLCO.
“We are brothers, his great-grandfather was also mine. We were friends from Standard Six and beyond school,” Zukulu says of a friendship since soured.
“We have never had a direct fallout. When we meet, we meet as brothers. But we are no longer friends. It is the things he says in my absence, not in my presence, like ‘Sinegugu is a troublemaker’ and lately he has been spreading lies that I started XOLCO with him.”
“The social fabric of the community is being destroyed. When say an uncle dies and is pro-mining you are still obliged to attend the funeral. But people end up not eating the food for fear of being poisoned,” he says.
There are accounts of women being assaulted by herdboys for accepting food parcels from pro-mining interests, unexplained fires razing tourist infrastructure, reports of cash handouts by mining interests in exchange for support and anti-mining activists subjected to police raids and harassment.
Russel Hartshorne, 32, concedes the opportunity for a community lease agreement for the Mtentu River Lodge Guest House in 2011 came about when Qunya was wearing two hats, as XOLCO representative and also chair of the eco-tourism community body, the Amadiba Coastal Communities Development Association Trust. The trust was on the cusp of signing a deal with a major player in the eco-tourism field, but it was rejected at the eleventh hour by Qunya.
Hartshorne and his business partner stepped into the gap with little capital and have a written agreement with the community, including profit share and local employment, but admits it has little validity.
“If the community says go, than we go,” he says.
The pro-mining lobby claims 80% of the 2,000 to 3,000 people directly impacted by the proposed mine support it. Anti-mining activists claim the same percentage is against it. A 2007 report by the South African Human Rights Commission said “despite a chronic lack of infrastructure, the majority of the affected community are not in favor of mining.” Mbizana municipality is ranked as South Africa’s worst performing local government by the research and advocacy group Good Governance Africa.
Sebenzani Mchebi, at the age of 73, lives on a homestead among arable fields and livestock within the proximity of the proposed mining operation with 32 other adults and “I don’t know how many children”.
“If they bring the machines here where will we live? Where will the animals get their grass? Our water will be poisoned. Where do we get land like this? It will be the end of our lives. The government does not care, they are on the side of mining,” she says.
“We are prepared to die for this land, everyone is. Bazooka is not the first person to die (three other anti-mining activists are believed to have been poisoned),” says Ndovela, who is facing a charge of the possession of an unlicensed firearm after police confiscated the weapon while he was on his way to a community blockade to prevent officials gaining access to the dune site.
“We have no say about our land. Our ancestors fought for this land. Why are we going to sell our land to Australia?” says Ndovela.
Caruso did not respond to detailed questions from FORBES AFRICA.