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A Death on the Wild Coast: Murder and Mining in South Africa

25/05/2016 09:24 | Updated 25 May 2016

The hitmen came in a white Polo with a rotating blue lamp on the roof. Two men got out the car and knocked at the door saying they were the police. Sikhosiph 'Bazooka' Rhadebe, the Chairman of a community group opposing an Australian mining venture on South Africa's Wild Coast, was then shot with eight bullets to the head. He died on March 22 this year defending his son.

Trouble has been brewing on the Wild Coast for a decade now. Nelson Mandela's ancestral lands are a region remarkable for their voluminous, thundering beauty arching over bowling green hills. They are also home to vast mineral deposits, and Bazooka Rhadebe's village of Xolobeni in Mbizana municipality sits on the front line. Australian company 'Mineral Commodities Limited' (MRC) has been trying to create a 22 km by 1.5km open cast titanium mine in the dunes that will alter land the Pondo people have inhabited since 500 AD.

Today however marks a global day of awareness where activists in South Africa, Australia and the UK are standing up against the activities of MRC in Xolobeni, and highlighting a rural community's right to prevent mining on their ancestral lands. Protests are taking place outside MRC's offices in Cape Town, while South African and Australian NGO's are orchestrating a media campaign. Meanwhile on-line pressure group Avaaz is targeting UK board member millionaire property investor Graham Edwards to divest from MRC.

The Xolobeni mining proposal has been splitting the community into two blocks ever since its inception; those that support the venture, such as local MRC black empowerment partner 'Xolco' and the Amadiba tribal authority chief, and those that see it as wrecking ball for the pristine beaches, estuaries and endangered flora and fauna.

Violent attacks, arson, attempted murder and night raids on anti-mining community activists in Mbizana have increased dramatically in the last year, while Rhadebe himself called two other members of his Amadiba Crisis Committee hours before his death to warn of a hit list at which he was at the top. Even journalists who attended Rhadebe's funeral ended up hospitalised after being beaten with machetes, while the local police refused to arrest any members of the mob responsible.

Although it has been reported that an employee of one of MRC's other operations in South Africa was implicated in one of last year's murder attempts, there is no evidence currently to suggest that MRC is responsible for Rhadebe's death. However, it is clear that members of the community are furious at the Amadiba Crisis Committee action's in blocking mining licence applications.

Hobson's Choice?

Those in support of the venture point to the mine as a fast track to economic development - Statistics SA's 2011 census reports that 85 percent of Mbizana's adult residents are unemployed and rely on government grants and subsistence farming, while most residents live on R50 (£.2.20) a day. If the mine comes, the community have been told that a proper road will arrive, people will be employed, and the mine will help one of the regions of South Africa with the highest rates of unemployment.

The local population therefore seems to face Hobson's choice; take this 22km stretch of mine, or continue with little assistance at all.

However given what people already know about mines in South Africa, large numbers of the community seem to prefer the later.

Murky mining in South Africa

In the last five years, miners in South Africa have seen fellow workers massacred by police at Marikana, a mine shaft collapse in the province of Mpumalanga trapping 100 workers and tens of thousands of miners who contracted the incurable lung disease silicosis, join a class action to sue mining companies for failing to protect their workers from silica dust.

Mining has also lead to environmental degradation across the country, the displacement of communities, the destruction of livelihoods such as fishing and farming, and largescale pollution from the mine dust produced in estuaries and water supplies.

Australia's aid strategy for Africa is unconcerned. It's Foreign Minister has stated that mining makes "a substantial contribution to economic development and poverty alleviation", and as such Australia has cut its aid to Africa and replaced it with a renewed commitment to mining on the continent. Australian mining companies are now the most rapidly expanding of all mining investors in Africa.

However, according to a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 380 people have died in mining accidents or in offsite skirmishes connected to Australian mining companies in African countries since 2004, while multiple Australian mining companies are accused of negligence, unfair dismissal, violence and environmental law-breaking across the continent.

The Shore Break

An extraordinary South African documentary called The Shore Break has though captured the Samson and Goliath nature of the struggle between Xolobeni's grass roots activists and this big Australian multi-national.

There is a moment in the documentary where a toothless man is inspecting a printed letter posted on a wooden gate addressed to the local community from the mining company. It says please respond by fax or email within 24hrs. The man grins. 'Where do we have such facilities?' he says.

Global days of activism, such as today, therefore highlight the power of those who do have such facilities, in helping intimidated communities such as Xolobeni's in spreading the message of activism for them.

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