Is History Repeating Itself? Pondoland Residents Strive To Conserve Their Land In Fight Reminiscent Of 1960s Apartheid Struggle

With a year having passed since the murder of environmental activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, the number of arrests and charges made remains unjustifiably at zero. Witnessed by his 17-year-old son at their home in Pondoland, Rhadebe was shot 8 times in the head. The brutal murder of Rhadebe and his prominence in the Pondoland anti-mining campaign cannot be seen as mutually exclusive occurrences. Rhadebe was the chairman of the community organization Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), the front running anti-mining group which is opposing and denying Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC), an Australian mining company, the rights to strip-mine the 100km stretch of sand dunes, which line the Pondoland region of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, for titanium. Home to some of the world’s richest ilmenite reserves, Pondoland is the perfect opportunity for companies seeking to profit immensely from one of the world’s most commercially valuable metals. With neither party yielding, recent months have seen a dramatic increase in violence, attacks, and murders against those promoting the anti-mining campaign.

Abusing the fact that Pondoland is South Africa’s least economically-developed region, mining proposals proffer the economic potential for the area regarding, for instance, employment and business developments. Although economic progress could accompany such change, the majority of Pondoland residents maintain that the execution of titanium mining would destroy their land beyond repair. An ecologically unique environment, Pondoland is globally renowned for its biodiversity, with a phenomenal 200 known endemic species in the area. Unwilling to witness the destruction of their botanical reserves, the contamination of freshwater, or the endangering of food security, the residents of Pondoland continue their 20-year-long fight for the freedom of their land.

The villagers’ fight to keep the sovereignty of their land is reminiscent of the 1960s uprising in Pondoland when residents protested the co-opting of their chief by the apartheid government whose hope it was to impose agricultural regimes for their benefit. This time, Pondoland is fighting external forces seeking to unsettle farmland and villages which would displace 500 people. MRC and local subsidiary, Transworld Energy and Minerals Resources (TEM), have incited furore in the Wild Coast since submitting their first mining proposal in the late 1990s. Mark Caruso, chairman of MRC has unashamedly sought to coerce those opposed to the project not only through promises of employment and economic gain but also through the underhanded manipulation of key figures in the Pondoland region. As opposed to entering a peaceful dialogue with the residents of Pondoland which would provide the means for the understanding, compromise, and progress of both parties, Caruso has avoided direct communication with those whose homeland he wishes to destroy. Attorney Henk Smith of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) stated last year, “[MRC] is, in effect, refusing to accept that it’s got to negotiate with the community.” For a peace settlement to be made, it is vital that the companies seeking to mine the Eastern Cape dunes actively engage with, and respect, the residents of those affected and the customary law which represents them.

Tension has risen as the mining proposals fracture the solidarity of the Pondoland community. The divisive fight over the land has not only fostered a culture of fear in the area, but has facilitated an outbreak of violence, mirroring a global trend of attacks against environmental activists. Indeed, the non-governmental organization, Global Witness, recorded almost 200 deaths of land activists in 2015, documenting a 59% increase from 2014, with the organization further claiming that, due to limited access to information, the numbers were undoubtedly higher. If these figures are to decrease, not only is communication between groups crucial, but respect of the planet we inhabit must supersede financial greed.

Problematically, the friction existing between the two parties in Pondoland is, seemingly, one that places monetary value at its centre, with pro-mining groups promising large financial gain as a result of the success of mining. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to the corruption of individuals who seek to reap the profitable benefits of the project, the most well-known being Chief Lunga Baleni. A traditional leader in the area, Baleni is now director of both MRC local partner companies TEM and Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco). Xolco was founded by Patrick Caruso, the brother of MRC executive chairman Mark Caruso, and holds a 26% share in the Pondoland mines. Formed using loans from MRC, Xolco remains desperate for the mining projects to go ahead, due to the significant repayments that the company owes to MRC. Its financial profitability, then, is dependent on the realisation of the mining project in Pondoland. The more money that is, directly or indirectly, invested into the proposal, the more the pro-mining campaign has to lose and the further will they press to ensure benefits are received.

Despite denying any involvement with the growing number of attacks and murders against those in the anti-mining party, Caruso is alleged to have condoned violence in an email to local stakeholders at the MRC’s Tormin mine on the Western Cape of South Africa, stating, “From time to time I have sought the Bible for understanding and perhaps I can direct you to Ezekiel 25.17. ‘And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.’” Perhaps only intended as a nonchalant allusion to the cult film, Pulp Fiction, Caruso’s email is demonstrative of his remarkable insensitivity and indifference towards the lives of those he seeks to ruin. The callous nature of Caruso’s approach is further reflected by his brother, Patrick, who, following the poisoning of anti-mining activist Scorpion Dimane, is alleged to have said that “there is always blood where there are these types of projects … in my experience you cannot have development without blood.”

Following the murder of Rhadebe and the subsequent indictment of Caruso, the MRC chairman withdrew from the project. Noting the increase in violence as a result of the pressures of the mining project, Caruso divested MRC from the proceedings and was said to give the control of TEM to local partner Keysha Investments 178. He issued the statement that “the future viability of the Xolobeni Project should be managed by stakeholders and organizations exclusively owned by South African people.” Despite the seemingly progressive nature of this, Nonhle Mbuthuma, a notable colleague of Rhadebe, pessimistically claims, “the government and the mining company are working hand in hand to make sure the mining takes place.” Indeed, the 18-month moratorium outlined by Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, whilst suspending the submission of mining applications, has been accused of serving to “bide time” for pro-mining organizations to confer.

Caruso remains a director of TEM, despite having claimed to relinquish his hold over the company. Even if Caruso were to remove himself completely, the destructive effects of his participation have already been monumental and will be long-lasting. The manipulation of influential figures such as Lunga Baleni and Zamile Qunya in the forming of Xolco will continue to generate social unrest in Pondoland. Indeed, corruption has already been attributed to Baleni who is reported to have bailed out a number of individuals who were charged with the attempted murder of opponents of the mining proposal. In his bid to dismantle the resistance of his fellow villagers, Baleni has further abused his position of power as chief, having fired local headwoman and family relation Duduzile Baleni. This raises questions surrounding the supposed democratic construction of customary laws and the evident fragmentation of this by Baleni’s increasingly autocratic dominance. This disruption of social harmony from within has been received with dismay and outrage. Mbuthuma says, “the chiefs of Pondoland don’t come before the people.” In the interests of returning peace and safety to the residents of Pondoland, it is crucial that Baleni challenges the self-serving nature of his alignment with the mining proposals and reflects on the internal damage of the region that is being caused by his judgments.

The current narrative of control and domination being written by the mining companies echoes the colonial roots of South Africa’s past; occupied by European settlers in the late 1800s, the control of land, its ownership, and its use belonged to white colonists. Despite outwardly appearing to pander to the needs of Pondoland’s locals, Mark Caruso has been the instigator of a siege which has assumed its superiority over the Pondoland region and its people. Instead of making promises of financial gain to coerce the resistance, the pro-mining campaign must listen to those whose displacement would occur as a result of strip-mining. The preservation of this native reserve must be foregrounded over the current self-interested focus on monetary profitability. While the residents do seek to develop Pondoland’s economy, mining is not the only way that this could be done. Given the unique ecology and environment of Pondoland, tourism seems a viable approach to boost the region’s economy. With long stretches of coastal scenery, wetlands, a vast array of endemic species, and the distinctive connection evident between the land and its inhabitants, Pondoland is an ideal tourist spot that should boast its supreme environmental beauty. Although the mining proposals pledge to rehabilitate the land that is destroyed, there is no guarantee that permanent damage would not be made to the pollution of freshwater or harm to wildlife, for instance, and which would have drastic repercussions on the success of conservation and tourism.

The recent epidemic of violence in Pondoland is indicative of the inhumane nature with which the dispute is being enacted. The tragic loss of Rhadebe, Dimane, and others, and the failing of the justice system to find accountability for these murders, has served to exacerbate feelings of anger, frustration, and, ultimately, mourning. With Pondoland claiming to be the birthplace of South African leader, activist, and philanthropist, the apt words of Nelson Mandela seem exceptionally poignant with regard to the mining conflict: “Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and weaker, we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.”