The story behind the murder of anti-mining activist, Fikile Ntshangase

The story behind the murder of anti-mining activist, Fikile Ntshangase

Fikile Ntshangase will be buried tomorrow.  Roving Reporters looks into the background to her murder last Thursday evening.

  • Mine boss links the killing and other recent incidents of violence and intimidation to concerns in the community about job losses should be the mine be forced to close
  • Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – the custodian of Kwazulu-Natal’s protected parks – wants  Tendele Coal Mining to fund a comprehensive study on the adverse impacts its operations have on the iMfolozi wilderness area
  • Commentators draw links between the dispute over Tendele mining’s operations and the planned Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project on the Wild Coast where an anti-mining activist was assassinated in 2016.
by Fred Kockott and Matthew Hattingh

65-year old Fikile Ntshangase was a vocal opponent of the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine situated on the south eastern border of the Africa’s oldest game park, the Hlhuhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

She was also a leading member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) which is taking legal action against the mine’s owners, Tendele Coal Mining in two parallel cases before the courts.

One of the court cases, scheduled for hearing in the Supreme Court of Appeal on November 3, seeks an order that all mining activities halt until the mine complies with environmental and other laws

But the court challenge that allegedly placed a price on Ntshangase’s life is MCEJO’s application to the Pretoria High Court to set aside Tendele’s latest mining right, issued in 2016 and covering a 222km2 area in Mpukunyoni. This is according to a joint statement from MCEJO, the Global Environmental Trust (GET) the Centre for Environmental Rights and other organisations that have long been concerned about Somkhele’s mining operations.

“Untold destruction”

They say the mine has caused “untold destruction of the environment” and adversely impacted on people lives in the area.

Hundreds of rural families complain that the mine has ruined their pastoral way of life. Regular blasting has also damaged homes. Photos: Rob Symons


Over the past few months, tensions have risen in the community over the proposed expansion of Tendele’s operations into the new mining area, and MCEJO’s opposition to that expansion.

GET spokesperson, Sheila Berry says that recently Tendele had been pushing for an “agreement” to be signed between MCEJO and Tendele to the effect that MCEJO withdraw its court challenges of Tendele’s expansion of its coal mine in view of massive numbers of jobs that will be lost should the mine be unable to expand.

While seven members of MCEJO, including Sabelo Ddladla, a lead applicant in the court cases, recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement to this effect, Ntshangase stood her ground.

“Nsthangase refused to sign the agreement and days before her killing stated her intention to write an affidavit about an alleged offer of a R350,000 bribe in return for her signature,” says Berry.

“I refused to sign. I cannot sell out my people. And if need be, I will die for my people,” she is reported to have said.

At about 18:30 on Thursday, four gunmen arrived at Nsthangase’s house, where she lives with her 11-year old grandson, about 500 metres away from the site a planned mine expansion. She died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds.

Sabelo Dladla (right), pictured here with attorney Kirsten Youens in 2018, is among a splinter group of seven MCEJO members who recently signed a MOU with Tendele to get all its members to withdraw legal cases against the mine following fears for their safety.

Plea for calm

The latest joint statement from Tendele, local municipal councillors, traditional leaders and unions representing the mine employees, condemns the killing and calls for “calm and leadership from all parties to ease tensions”.

Tendele CEO, Jan Du Preez has linked the murder and other recent incidents of violence and intimidation to concerns about retrenchments and job losses that will occur if all families living in future mining areas do not agree to relocate.

He says 254 families in future mining areas had agreed to move, accepting average compensation of R750,000 per household, but 19 families are still holding out, demanding excessive compensation.

He says the mine is operating lawfully, and expansion is necessary to keep the mine viable and protect 1,600 direct jobs and hundreds of indirect jobs in this impoverished part of the country.

Scar on landscape

The Mpunkyoni tribal area is home to about 158,000 people. Villagers here make their living raising goats and cattle, and growing food for the table. Many also depend on social welfare grants and money sent by family members working in the cities. The mine and the park are the biggest employers in the area, with more than 3,000 full- and part-time workers between them.

Somkhele mine is not just a scar on the landscape. With coal trucks rumbling in and out of the mine 24 hours a day (see below), coal dust lines  the roadside gutters as well as surrounding vegetation, states a report from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Photos Rob Symons.


In Divided We Dance, a 2018 short film directed by Anna Prichard, Somkhele villagers talk about the many difficulties they have faced since the mine opened in 2007, and how they once had cows, fields and natural water from springs and streams – much of which is now gone.

Villagers also complain of noise and dust from the mine, and point to cracks in the walls and windows of their homes that they say are caused by regular blasting.  During visits to Somkhele over the years Roving Reporters correspondents have observed coal dust in the air and on the plants.

Many people relocated for the creation of the mine in 2007, are still aggrieved that graves were dug up and the remains reburied in a hastily constructed cemeteries without being properly identified. In Zulu culture, it is custom to bury loved ones at the family homesteads so people can remain close to their ancestors. Photo: Rob Symons

Park under pressure

A story recently published by Mongabay reveals that the mine is also affecting Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.  Frequent blasting rends the air and heavy machinery rumbles around the clock.

A recent report by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the government agency that manages conservation areas in KwaZulu-Natal, says the mine’s impact on the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park has increased substantially over the past two years.

“The noise and visual intrusion (day and night) into the iMfolozi wilderness area is significant and constantly noted by Ezemvelo staff and visitors on the trail, seeking a wilderness experience,” Jenny Longmore, Ezemvelo’s senior conservation planner, writes in the report.

This map from of the mining areas from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife shows how close the Somkhele mine has encroached on the iMfolozi Wilderness area, extending in the buffer zone. Ezemvelo has called for biodiversity offset zones to be established.

Longmore raises concerns about the effect of the noise and light on game, noting it has been shown elsewhere that “human-induced noise, ground vibrations and light disturbance” can discourage a variety of wildlife species from entering certain areas. These stimuli have also been linked to increased stress among elephants and the death of crocodiles, both of which are found in the  960-square-kilometer (370-square-mile) park.

The park’s white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) population is now in decline. Longmore has flagged a section of the park nearest to the mine as a “rhino poaching ‘hot spot’ zone.” She offers a number of explanations for this, including a growing road network and traffic around the mine, which make it easier for poachers to sneak into the park.

One of Somkhele’s mine’s discard dumps near the banks of the iMfolozi river – a vital water source in the area that also feeds iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Photo Rob Symons

On the basis of the polluter must pay principle, Ezemvelo has asked the mine to fund a comprehensive study into the adverse impacts its operations have had on the park.

While the proposed northern extensions would not bring the mine closer to the park boundary, various environmental groups are quick to point out that the operation will continue to exact a toll on the quality and quality of water in the iMfolozi River that feeds iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 15 km downstream of the mine, on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

Tendele CEO Jan du Preez says the mine has gone to great lengths to protect water sources, while also providing water for residents in an area periodically hit by drought. He says Tendele is also engaging with Ezemvelo to set up biodiversity-offset zones.

Mining forum 

The mine has also worked to address community grievances through quarterly meetings of the Mpukunyoni Community Mining Forum, Du Preez says. The forum, which includes traditional leaders from 30 tribal wards, elected councilors from the local municipality communities directly affected by the mine, mine workers, and businesses that trade with the mine.

Attorney Kirsten Youens who represents families adversely affected by the mine, reckons MCEJO has about 4000 members people. Du Preez disputes, saying it represents fewer than 150 people, none of which have attended MCMF meetings.

He says the mine’s legal advisors are currently engaging with MCEJO with a view to finding an amicable resolution for all interested and affected parties.

“Mediation remains our objective to avoid the closure of the mine which will result in the loss of 1 600 jobs in an area where unemployment is rife. If the mine closes, this will have a devastating effect on the community as thousands of people benefit directly and indirectly from the mine,” says Du Preez.

He estimates that some 20 000 people directly benefit from the operation of the mine and a further 20 000 people have obtained educational and training benefits since the mine’s inception some 14 years ago.

Residents of Ocilwane village, Fuleni, situated on the opposite side of the iMfolozi River to Somkhele mine, also reckon that coal dust and blasting affects them, their farming operations and water sources. Photo: Rob Symons

While Tendele continues to blame people refusing to relocate for delaying the mine expansion, Youens counters that Tendele only has itself to blame for not getting free, fair and informed consent for its expansion plans from directedly affected families, and for operating unlawfully without all the necessary environmental authorisations.

She accuses Tendele of inciting violence by pinning impending job losses on her clients.

“The strategies used by Tendele are sadly typical of many companies operating in impoverished rural communities,” she says. “Mines dangle incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, which almost always lead to violence and deaths.”

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park’s Longmore acknowledges the mine is a major employer in the area, but argues it has fewer full- and part-time employees than the park. Jobs at Tendele will come to an end when the mine has been depleted, whereas the park and related projects have potential for growth and are timeless in value, she says.

Cheryl Curry, chief executive of the Wilderness Leadership School, which runs the wilderness trails in the park, says she hopes the courts will recognize this and the critical role wilderness areas play in the fight against climate change, protecting biodiversity and human well-being.

White rhinoceros in Hlhuhluwe-iMfolozi Park are easy targets for poachers these days. The growing road network and traffic around Somkhele coal mine makes it easier for poachers to sneak into the park, says Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Photo: Bernard Gagnon (Wikimedia commons)

“Damage being done to the environmentally sensitive iMfolozi wilderness area is direct and immediate and permanent. It is happening now,” Curry says. “We are talking about … the protected heritage of [Zulu] King Shaka’s royal hunting grounds and about a scientifically proclaimed wilderness area with all that this entails, including the vital protection of its biodiversity.”

Many commentators have drawn links between the dispute over Tendele mining’s operations and the planned Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape province.

This project too has divided the local community and in 2016, an anti-mining activist, Bazooka Radebe, was assassinated there. No arrests have been made.

After his death, Xolobeni residents assisted by the #Right2SayNo campaign, successfully applied to the Pretoria High Court for an order that their free, prior and informed consent is required before the state can award a mining license over their land.

Their lawyer, Johan Lorenzen, told Mongabay that if Tendele had complied with the Xolobeni #Right2SayNo order this would have ensured a clear agreement guiding compensation for all affected households and likely prevented the violence and intimidation in Mpukonyoni. – Additional research, Laura du Toit.

  • Fred Kockott and Matthew Hattingh direct Roving Reporters environmental journalism training project. Du Toit is a Rhodes University journalism student.

BANNER IMAGE: Fikile Ntshangase with samples of allegedly dirty water being used by the community near Somkhele coal mine in 2018. Photo courtesy Rob Symons. Click here to view full album of images.

This story, first produced for Mongabay  was updated for publication by GroundUp.

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