By Magnificent Mndebele

Dear mhlali wasemayin’

South Africa is a country that boasts itself with a considerable number of big mining corporations. These corporations are all over— from the Eastern Cape to Northern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Free State, Gauteng and Mpumalanga and far north of the country in Limpopo.

These mining corporations make astronomical profits and one would think a natural occurrence is that mining affected communities benefit greatly in the accrued profits. But communities are left behind and subjected to unbearable environmental destruction.

The plight of mining affected communities is exacerbated by the antagonistic behaviour and neglect of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, which is just as complicit as the mines. So, who do we have as mining affected communities?

No one.

We only have ourselves. Our strength is in our solidarity as mining affected communities.

We should remain united and must assert our motto: “Nothing About Us, Without Us.” I want to point the torchlight on one recent protest by the Bakwena Ba Mogopa (BBM) in Brits, North West. The fifteen villages belonging to BBM had been protesting since 29 April against Glencore’s Rhovan Vanadium Mine.

The mine has been operating for two years without an approved Social Labour Plan, or at least nothing that the communities know of. For this, the merafe called the mine to account.

The community was also protesting, among other issues, against the skyrocketing number of unemployed youth in the hosting communities, transparency regarding the merafe’s trust account whose funds the traditional authority allegedly mismanaged, representation and inclusion of the communities’ voice at the mine’s highest decision-making level since the merafe rightfully owns 26 percent of the mine.

Glencore opted for naivety or arrogance by ignoring the demands of the community and this nonchalant behaviour forced the community to completely shut down operations at Glencore’s Rhovan Vanadium operation.

They squeezed off the mine from where it hurts the most— its balls. Protests usually die abruptly and often companies go back to normal operations— and it is possible that Glencore thought of the same when the Bakwena Ba Mogopa protests initially ruptured into full swing.

The community members, supported by MACUA, remained resilient. For demanding what is rightfully theirs, you know what the mine did? It abused court processes by obtaining an interdict against the community.

This, essentially, rendered the landowners’ protest unlawful just for demanding accountability from their stakeholder. Empowered by the court, the Public Order Policing along with Bethanie police officers armed themselves and stormed into the village where they fired rubber bullets indiscriminately in order to disperse the crowd.

All along, until this time, the community had never been violent. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the police were used by the mine to resort to intimidatory tactics with an intent to cause bodily harm on peaceful protestors. Instead of quelling the situation, this was just like pouring paraffin on fire. Yes, the rubber bullets did cause harm to some protestors, but there is one thing the bullets failed to do: break apart a united and determined community.

MACUA and Bakwena Ba Mogopa-Community Development Forum engaged with the police that their behaviour is worsening the situation. The police officers had to be properly educated about the crux of the demands and why the community was determined to protest at all costs.

These talks paid off.

But it was the organic resilience of the community that set everything else into motion. We all can learn a thing or two from how the BBM community dealt with the mine.

The community also threatened that if their demands are unheard, as police see them as the problem, they would not vote.

Deploying the police to shoot at peaceful protests demanding their rights and accountability is gross and displays how government departments often neglect community and gaslight them. In an unexpected turn of events, the North West provincial government opted to finally come down to the community in an attempt to “intervene”.

The government officials had initially thought they would allocate just 15 minutes for questions- and-answers from the community and the media. Clearly, they had prepared a whole hell-of-nothing and empty words to dish out to the community. They had not come to engage.

The community immediately put the politicians off their place as they were clear that the officials cannot dictate the terms of the engagement. In fact, even to come to engage the community was an after-thought because a few days earlier, the provincial government opted to set up a meeting with Glencore and traditional authorities.

The community was excluded. This is very telling of government officials’ double standards. As mining affected communities we should always unmask these contradictions and resist them at all levels.

When mining companies fail to listen to the community, we should do exactly what the BBM community has done– stand in solidarity and demand for your voice to be heard. And, of course, this sometimes comes at a heavy prize. Mining companies have the financial muscles but what we have learned from the BBM community is that no amount of brutality and intimidation can break and defeat the spirit of a community united in action.

The fight against capitalist entities that disregard communities is endless. As we speak, in Somkhele, KwaZulu Natal, the community is fighting for their livelihood as another mine, Tendele Coal Mine, is determined to evict the community from their ancestral lands and to set up another operation without the required regulatory compliances.

The Somkhele community needs all of us to be in solidarity and to help resist the mine’s onslaught. We should never forget what we stand for– Nothing About Us, Without Us– and we should not forget who we are– the Mining Affected
Communities United in Action.

*Magnificent Mndebele is the head of media and communications at MACUA.