MAC: Mines and Communities

South Africa: Environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase murdered

Published by MAC on 2020-10-27
Source: GroundUp, Centre for Environmental Rights

She was the Vice-Chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO).

Shocking and devastateing. Mam Ntshangase was the vice-chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), and a prominent critic of the proposed expansion of the Tendele Coal Mine at Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal. According to sources, over the past few months, tension has been rising in the community over the proposed expansion of Tendele’s operations, and MCEJO’s opposition to that expansion.

See also:

2020-06-13 The Weekend Essay: One of South Africa's largest mines at battle centre
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The killing of Somkhele environmental activist, Fikile Ntshangase

26 October, 2020

Mama Ntshangashe was the Vice-Chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (“MCEJO”). MCEJO has been challenging the further expansion of a large coal mine at Somkele in KwaZulu-Natal by Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd. One of the court cases brought by MCEJO is scheduled for hearing in the Supreme Court of Appeal on 3 November 2020.

On Thursday, 22 October 2020 at about 18:30, four gunmen arrived at Mam Nsthangase’s house, where she lives with her 11-year-old grandson. Current reports say that they forced themselves into the home and shot her 5 times and that she died on the scene.

Tendele’s coal mining operations have caused untold destruction of the environment and the homes and livelihoods of the residents of Somkhele. (Photographs and video footage available.)

Over the past few months, tension has been rising in the community over the proposed expansion of Tendele’s operations, and MCEJO’s opposition to that expansion.

Recently, Tendele was pushing for an agreement to signed between MCEJO and Tendele to the effect that MCEJO would withdraw its Court challenges of Tendele’s expansion of its coal mine at Somkhele. Mama Nsthangase refused to sign.

She warned sub-committee members that they had no power to make decisions on behalf of MJECO and that the “agreement” only benefited Tendele. She also refused to attend any of the secret meetings that other sub-committee members held with Tendele. Days before her brutal killing, Mama Ntshangase stated her intention to write an affidavit, revealing that sub-committee members had promised her a payment of R350,000 in return for her signature.

The court challenge that placed a price on Mama Ntshangase’s life is MJECO’s pending review application of Tendele’s new mining right in respect of a 222km2 area in Mpukunyoni, KZN. This review is due to be heard by the North Gauteng High Court in March 2021.

Tendele has publicly characterised MCEJO’s legal challenge as a threat to the mine’s continued existence, stating that, with the current mining area depleted, it needed to expand its mining area or face closure.

The expansion requires relocation of 19 families from their ancestral land. Many of these families have lived on their land for generations.

Tendele cannot commence any operations in the new mining right area until these families agree to Tendele’s “compensation” offer and sign relocation agreements. These families were subjected to months of violence and intimidation. Despite the clear volatility of the situation, Tendele has accused these families of “holding the Mine, its … employees and many families who have signed [relocation] agreements and indeed the entire community to ransom”. Tendele carried out its pressure campaign even while these families were receiving anonymous death threats and gunmen opened fire on one of the families’ homes.

In May 2020, Tendele tried to bring an urgent court application to force the families to accept their compensation offer but abruptly removed the matter from the Court roll when the families opposed the application.

Tendele has now embarked upon a campaign to pit the State, the Ingonyama Trust Board, traditional leaders and fellow community members against these families to pressure them into signing relocation agreements. Tendele requested the MEC for Transport, Community Safety & Liaison KZN, Minister Ntuli and department officials to set up a “task team”, with the aim of “the two court cases opened by MJECO against the mine remain a threat and needs [sicto be withdrawn”.

It is against this backdrop that the pro-mining campaign was stepped up during the past week. On 15 October, two sub-committee members, accompanied by two known hitmen, tried to disrupt an MCEJO executive committee meeting with community leaders, which included Mama Ntshangase. One sub-committee member tried to lock the doors, and a prominent leader was assaulted. A criminal case is being opened. This leader, who works in another area, has been warned that his life will be in danger if he is seen in the vicinity.

Billy Mnqondo, a founding member of MCEJO, reports that one of the hitmen kept saying “kuzochitheka igazi” (there will be bloodshed). His appeal to the police is: “Make sure that the criminals who murdered our comrade are caught and go to jail. Mam Ntshangase was killed for standing up for what is right. This is wrong and cannot go unpunished.”

It appears that the mine is being supported by the KwaZulu-Natal government. In July, the Department of Community Safety and Liaison sent a staff member, apparently from its Civilian Secretariat arm (which is conspicuous in its absence whenever the threat of violence looms), to persuade community members to negotiate with the mine.

Since then, after MCEJO members thought it only proper to approach the office of the Ingonyama King Goodwill Zwelithini about their struggle, they have come under even further government pressure via the office of the Premier and COGTA. This is the self-same government that claims to be a custodian for land reform to redress the land imbalance – while wilfully pushing to displace rural farmers from their family land from which they subsist.

For the State and Traditional Authorities actively to assist Tendele in its efforts to bring about MJECO’s withdrawal of its review application is abhorrent to our Constitutional order. Without access to Court, local communities’ right to dignity and section 24 environmental rights are illusory.

The strategies used by Tendele are sadly typical of many companies operating in impoverished rural communities. Mines dangle incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, which almost always lead to violence and deaths. In rural areas that are difficult to police, it takes someone with the determination and the courage of Mama Ntshangase to promote community solidarity and resistance in the face of these strategies. There are other leaders of this calibre in MCEJO and, if anything, the assassination of Mama Ntshangase has renewed their determination to step up the fight against exploitation by the mine.

We mourn the senseless tragedy of Mama Ntshangase’s murder and condemn her killing.

We call on the South African Police Service to act swiftly to arrest and prosecute her murderers.

We call on the Tendele to stop its campaign of dividing and fomenting violence in the affected community of Somkhele, and to provide funds for Mam Ntshangase’s funeral and for maintenance for her orphaned grandson.

We stand by all defenders of land and environmental rights and will act to defend their Constitutional rights to life, dignity, free speech, access to justice, access to food and water, and an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing.

Joint Media Statement:

CER (Centre for Environmental Rights)

Earthlife Africa

GET (Global Environmental Trust)


MACUA (Mining Affected Communities United in Action)

MCEJO (Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation)

SAHRDN (Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network)

WAMUA (Women Against Mining United in Action)

Contacts: Tsepang Molefe; +27 74 405 1257;

                  Lerato Balendran; +27 79 071 744 ;

                  Sifiso Dladla; +27 78 849 8621;

                  Robby Mokgalaka; +27 73 774 3362;

CER mourns the murder of an anti-coal activist in KZN, calls for justice

23 October 2020 

The Centre for Environmental Rights is shocked and devastated by the murder of KwaZulu-Natal activist Fikile Ntshangase, shot dead last night at her home where she lived with her young grandson.

Mam Ntshangase was the vice-chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), and a prominent critic of the proposed expansion of the Tendele Coal Mine at Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal.

We mourn Mam Ntshangase’s death and express our deepest condolences with her family and friends. We also extend solidarity to MCEJO and their attorney, Kirsten Youens, a longstanding partner of CER, and other partners in the area who work closely with MCEJO and Mam Ntshangase.

We honour Mam Ntshangase’s activism, strength and dedication to the wellbeing of her community. We call for #JusticeforFikileNtshangase, and call on the South African Police Service to conduct a thorough investigation and swiftly arrest all suspects.

We also call on the SAPS to provide additional protection to other activists in the area, as this appears not to have been an isolated incident. Over the past month there have been other violent attempts to hurt, threaten and intimidate activists and community members who oppose the Tendele coal mine expansion.

We are angry with the way in which the destruction caused by coal mining divides communities. We are angry with the way in which coal mining companies force individuals in affected communities to choose between money, and the protection of the long-term resilience of the land, water and air on which they depend for their lives and livelihoods. We are angry that it is those on the frontlines who have to bear the brunt not only of the environmental and social destruction caused by coal mining, but also too often pay the ultimate price for defending their rights and the rights of their communities.

CER is an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in one of the court cases brought by MCEJO seeking to interdict Tendele from mining without the legally required authorisations. This case is set down for hearing in the Supreme Court of Appeal on 3 November 2020.

Fikile Ntshangase opposed a mine extension. Last night she was murdered

Violence on the border of Mfolozi-Hluhluwe Game Park linked to fears of mass retrenchments.

Fred Kockott and Matthew Hattingh

23 October 2020

A vocal opponent of plans to extend Somkhele coal mine, one of South Africa’s largest open coal mines, situated on the border of Mfolozi-Hluhluwe Game Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal, was murdered on Thursday night.

65-year-old Fikile Ntshangase was a leading member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, (MCEJO), which is involved in two increasingly complex and protracted legal battles, one of which is to halt all mining at Somkhele until its owners, Tendele Coal (Pty) Ltd, comply with all the required environmental and other laws.

The other is to set aside additional mining rights granted in 2016 and covering more than 222 square kilometres.

Tendele argues that only a fraction of this will be mined, but many people in surrounding communities are opposed to Tendele’s mining operations, saying insufficient public consultation had taken place in securing mining rights and that their consent was not sought.

Papers before the courts also allege a failure by Tendele to properly assess and mitigate the environmental damage caused by its mining operations. This includes the mine’s impact on the air, water, soil, visual quality of the environment, and people’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing.

Ntshangase was very vocal in her resistance to the mining, and allegedly turned down a bribe of R350,000 made recently to get her to withdraw her support for current legal cases before court, according to MCEJO’s attorney Kirsten Youens.

Ntshangase was apparently shot and killed in her home in Ophondweni, just 500m away from a planned mining extension, at about 6:30pm on Thursday evening (though police still need to confirm these details).

Tendele’s chief executive officer, Jan du Preez, condemned the murder and other recent incidents of violence and intimidation. He links these to concerns in the community about the retrenchments and the threat of future job losses. He said allegations of bribery were blatant lies.

Youens said over the past two years, Tendele’s management briefs and open letters to staff and directly affected communities, had pinned the blame for potential loss of jobs, contracts, and tax revenue on those families in Ophondweni and Emalahleni that had repeatedly declined offers of compensation.

This was tantamount to inciting violence and it has put the lives of her clients at risk, said Youens.

“All those refusing to sign relocation agreements with Tendele have received death threats,” said Youens.

She said Ntshangase’s murder followed a drive-by shooting in April at the Ophondweni home of Tholakele Mthethwa, and an earlier attack on the home of Sabelo Dladla, a lead applicant in both court cases. Dladla has since withdrawn as an applicant, citing safety as a principal reason and the impact of closure of the mine could have in communities still reeling from the impact of Covid-19.

Dladla and six other members of MCEJO have since signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tendele to “set aside their differences” and find a way to ensure the survival of the mine “as only a strong mine can assist the community in the fight against poverty, and make a difference in the life of some of the 220,000 people in the community”.

The MOU further states: “The MCEJO Committee members that sign this document agree that all pending court cases and all outstanding legal issues between the Parties shall be withdrawn”. It further advises the seven MCEJO signatories to seek a mandate from all its members and legal representatives “to not bring any legal action or court proceedings” against Tendele from the date when the mining starts in the new mining areas.

Youens characterises the memorandum as a typical underhanded dealing by Tendele. She said MCEJO was investigating allegations that various members of MCEJO had been offered as much as R350,000 to withdraw from litigation.

“That’s all nonsense,” said Du Preez. He said the company was engaging with affected residents in good faith through an inter-ministerial task team that had been established to resolve all disputes arising over planned mine expansion, and its existing operations.

He said Tendele had done much to improve the lives of many in the area, well beyond the wages it pays its workers and subcontractors. He said this included contracts with 70 local entrepreneurs, skills training for unemployed people, agricultural and basic infrastructure projects sponsored by the mine, educational initiatives at creches, primary schools and an edu-centre for high school and university students.

He said it would be a travesty of justice if the mine had to close because 19 families refused to relocate, or if a court application preventing the planned mine extension were to succeed.

“It would deal a death blow to the mining industry in South Africa, and scare away investors,” said Du Preez.

But Youens argues that Tendele has only itself to blame for not being able to proceed with its mining expansion plans.

“The actual truth is that Tendele cannot commence site preparation or core mining activities until such time as it has obtained all necessary environmental authorisations,” she says.

Tendele needs to implement an approved biodiversity offset plan; obtain amendments to its official environmental management plan to mine in exclusion and buffer zones; secure a water use licence; a waste management licence, and permits to remove protected plants; and exhume and relocate graves, said Youens.

Du Preez said while mistakes had been made in the past, all these matters had since been satisfactorily addressed. All that was lacking was the finalisation of relocation agreements for the 19 families holding out.

In an attempt to resolve this stand-off, Tendele applied to the Pietermartizburg High Court in May this year to intervene and determine compensation payouts to the 19 families in Ophondweni and Emlalahleni.

But after sworn statements answering the application were filed, Tendele postponed its application indefinitely and asked to mediate.

In her affidavit, Ophondweni villager, Tholakele Mthethwa, states: “I was born on top of a seam of coal of the hardest and most compact quality: anthracite.”

“Tendele asked the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) for a right to scoop that coal out from under me and to sell it for profit. They never asked me or my neighbours for permission to do so as required by law. They did not even bother to attempt to reach agreement with me on the terms on which they would move me, my family, my ancestors, or any of my neighbours from our ancestral land. Despite this, the DMRE gave them a mining right covering over 200 square kilometres. This was unlawful. Blatantly.”

She continues with a detailed account of how representatives of the mine and traditional authorities put pressure on her family to sign a relocation agreement, and how finally, her home was raked by gunfire in a drive-by shooting as her family were settling in for the night, on 24 April 2020.

She said she heard the sound of a van approaching her home, and looked out her kitchen window.

“I had lights on behind me, so I assume I was visible to whoever was in the van,” said Mthethwa. “As I closed the curtain, gunshots were fired through the window. I fell to my knees and crawled to my bedroom. Gunshots were still being shot when I arrived in the bedroom.”

“My daughter and two-year-old granddaughter had been sleeping … As soon as the shooting started, they rolled onto the floor and my daughter held my granddaughter down so that she would not stand up. They were not hit. Afterwards we found four bullets inside the house and 19 cartridges outside,” said Mthethwa.

No arrests have yet been made related to any incidents of violence and intimidation described in court papers filed by MJECO, or for Ntshangase’s murder.

Du Preez said the situation on the ground was very tense on Friday.

“We are retrenching some 400 people, and had to shut down one plant … If the mine can be saved the risk of violence will dramatically decrease,” said Du Preez.

This story was produced for GroundUp by Roving Reporters.

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