Ntshangase’s voice rings louder than gunshots

The Guardian
Activist Fikile Ntshangase’s death is another case of the injustice that environmental defenders endure.

The voices singing and the dancing in honour of environmental defender Fikile Ntshangase would not be silenced during a memorial streamed around the world.

And her story will not be silenced. 

"Mam" was not just a grandmother. The 63-year-old was also an everyday hero fighting for justice as the vice-chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO).


A vocal anti-mining activist, she dedicated her life to stopping Tendele Coal controversial Somkhele mine. The mining company has consistently claimed it acts within the law. 

According to The Guardian, Tendele Coal condemned what it called a “senseless killing” and called for calm at the time of her death, in a joint statement released with local leaders.

MCEJO and other supporters have long been fighting Tendele’s environmental and human rights violations.

Ntshangase challenged the mining company hoping to expand the Somkhele mine by over 222 kilometre square without an environmental impact analysis or consent from some of the most adversely affected locals.

The mine’s expansion would additionally displace 145 peasant families and destroy ancestral graves on their land.


The site, on the border of Africa’s oldest nature reserve, is already degraded from coal dust poisoning the residents, livestock, and crops.

The dust comes from mine blasting, which not only destroys the land but also damages homes and pollutes water sources.

Locals suffer from respiratory illnesses, which is especially lethal to children and the elderly.

The dust turns white chickens grey and goat intestines black. The contamination threatens the villagers’ farming livelihoods, already at subsistence levels.

Beyond disrupting livelihoods, the loss of sacred gravesites and remains has deep cultural impacts since, according to the local Zulu traditions, their destruction cuts off spiritual connections with ancestors.


Tendele President Jan du Preez had publicly accused 19 families of holding their land ‘ransom’, to demand more money for relocation compensation.

But for people like Ntshangase, her heritage did not have a price as she fervently refused the selling of land to corporate interests.

The social movements campaigning against the coal mine’s expansion has continued for the past 15 years.

In 2005, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation helped provide seed money to begin the controversial project.

Tendele’s open letters and management briefs blame the communities' worsening economic situation on the declining amount of compensation being paid.


People locally say that those refusing the offers have experienced harassment, death threats, and even physical violence in the form of drive-by shootings.

On October 22 at about 18:30, four hitmen broke into Ntshangase’s house and shot her five times, killing her within a few meters of her 13-year-old grandson.

We cannot say for certain who is responsible for such acts. To date, there have still not been any arrests for the murder or any other incidences of violence and threats against MCEJO and the local community.

GroundWork streamed a memorial service hosted by Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA) on the morning of October 29 at a meeting hall in Somkhele.


Mourners sang and vowed to never stop fighting against mining on the land to honour the legacy of such a strong woman and community leader.

 The people that knew Ntshangase will undoubtedly forever remember her for unwaveringly living her words: “I cannot sell out my people, and if need be I will die for my people.”

Despite the renewed determination, however, resistance continues to be an uphill battle.

The South African government supports Tendele and its Somkhele mine, legally protecting them as the mining company attempts to gain control of the land.

However, stories like Ntshangase’s appear more common the more desperate extractive industries become for profit during times of clear ecological limits to capitalist growth.


Such tragedies reverberate around the world through the vibrations of every mine blast.

Tendele’s strategies appear to follow a disturbingly universal global pattern of multinational extractive corporations exploiting land and resources.

This takes place at the expense of poor rural communities with limited power to fight back.


Kirsten Youens, the MCEJO attorney, told the news website Mongabay that Tendele has incited violence by blaming impending job losses on her clients, when the mine had only itself to blame for operating without the required environmental authorizations.

“The strategies used by Tendele are sadly typical of many companies operating in impoverished rural communities,” she told Mongabay.


“Mines dangle incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequences of stirring deep community divisions, which almost always lead to violence and deaths.”

The mining industry globally does not have a good track record. As shown in the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas), cases of companies expropriating land through lack of prior consent and in some cases violent coercion are very well-documented around the world.

These companies have been known to receive government support and impunity for their crimes, or at least offer a blind eye to the violence or corrupt dealings.

Coal is a particularly deadly commodity for South Africa, the world’s fifth largest coal exporting country in and seventh largest coal producer.

Yet while fossil fuel industries in South and East Asia - especially India - enjoy cheap energy imports, coal continues to further impoverish South Africans.


Despite promises of economic development, coal mining-affected areas do not receive any of the financial benefits and are unable to afford the skyrocketing prices of their own domestic energy production.

Coal mines dominate communities by imposing environmental, social, public health, and monetary costs onto locals, and removing all other options besides supporting the industry, even crushing the imagination of life beyond coal.

According to Global Witness, a record environmental defenders around the world were killed in 2019 with 212 murders, a 30 percent increase from last year’s 164.

Approximately 10 percent of these recorded deaths were women, though this is not representative of the proportion of women involved in violent environmental conflicts.

In Somekhele, these extractions do not go unchallenged and women form an integral part of the community’s response to mining, even when they continue to remain unheard. Women at the frontlines, risk their lives far more than reports can capture.


This is because gendered social roles typically make women not only more aware of environmental consequences but also more personally affected.

Somkhele’s women, for example, bear the brunt of water scarcities caused by the mine because they are responsible for filling in for absent public services, needing to go further to find water for their families.

Extraction in Somkhele is not confined to the black rock beneath the ground. The extraction of surplus-labour is another issue.

This region is known as a ‘labour-sending’ area, where apartheid’s migrant system still suffers from a legacy of sending cheap male workers to industries such as mines.

Social reproduction expectations such as in household and community upkeep as well as caring for youth, the elderly, and sick or injured workers exploit women’s ‘unpaid labour’ as a subsidy to capitalism.


Yet the terrible form that migrant labour imposes on women in Somkhele is as exploitative as any in the world.

There is a lack of knowledge about women environmental defenders and their experiences and roles within extractive conflicts, owing to a global history of gendered silencing and repression on top of the opposition they already experience as those fighting from the margins.

Beyond not being taken seriously, trying to enter public spaces for debate often turns them and their families and community members into targets for violence.

Consequently, women are also much less reported whenever there are incidences of threats and assassinations as governments and corporations attempt to make them choke on their words, both figuratively shocking them into silence and literally strangling the life out of resistance leaders.

The truth must not remain buried. The rallying cries of women such as Ntshangase will keep echoing until we open our eyes to the injustices around us.


In Somkhele, women-led non-profit environmental law teams like AllRise and the Centre for Environmental Rights join forces with MCEJO and ecofeminist conservationists in the Global Environmental Trust to aid the Somkhele activists.

Organisations with strong grassroots feminist community networks, especially Women Affected by Mining United in Action and WoMin, have been warning for years that the conflict between profit and life has fatal consequences.

Their campaigns with Nsthangase and her sisters, daughters, and granddaughters mean there is still a chance that social and environmental justice will prevail.

This Author

Dalena Tran is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology in the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), where she researches violence against women environmental defenders during ecological distribution conflicts.

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