Vigils were held across South Africa for murdered anti-coal activist Mama Fikile Ntshangase, who was brutally gunned down in front of her teenage grandson on 22 October last year (2020).
She had, friends tell us, dared to oppose plans by coal mining company Petmin to expand operations in the Somkhele region of KwaZulu-Natal province.
Vigils serve multiple important social functions. Usually held at night, they are occasions for mourning that allow the bereaved to remember the significance of their loss.
Vigils also can serve as protests, drawing public attention to travesties of justice. Or they can be understood as a collective response to tragedy, one that hopefully eases the visceral pain of grief, replacing it with a sense of peace, and in the process, offering some sort of societal lesson.
Despite being held in broad daylight, the vigil for Ntshangase in Johannesburg was all of these things.
Gathered under the searing mid-day sun, a small group of some 15-20 activists, most of them women, convened in front of the offices of the Minerals Council, a powerful industry association, in central Johannesburg.
Coordinated with the assistance of the Extinction Rebellion network, they came from organisations including the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the Thembelihle Crisis Community, the Pink Panthers, and from mining-affected communities around Gauteng.
They came to mourn, and to remember Mama Ntshangase as the environmental warrior that she was, engaged in a front-line struggle for human-rights in an era of climate and ecological breakdown.
They also came to protest. They protested the violation of their constitutional right to clean air. They protested the injustice of the state’s failure to recognise and safeguard their crucial work as environmental defenders.
Mama Ntshangase was not the first to die for her community, and she is unlikely to be the last. As one protestor declared: “All of us here today are literally in the firing line.”
The police, the demonstrators asserted, were part of the problem. They have systematically failed to protect activists, and have failed to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of violence.
It is widely alleged for instance, that the investigation of the murder of Xolobeni anti-mining activist “Bazooka” Radebe was interfered with by some of the senior officials of the South African Police Service.
Keeping a watchful eye, uniformed police officers did their level best to intimidate, filming the vigil-keepers at close range, and circulating amongst them, demanding to know who had coordinated the event.
The activists also remonstrated against the complacency of the mining industry. The raison d’etre of the Minerals Council is, by its own description, to lobby for a policy, legislative and operating environment conducive to doubling investment in the sector.
The socio-economic and environmental well-being of mining affected communities, as the protesters were keenly aware, has always been low on the industry agenda.
As one demonstrator from the heavily contaminated Vaal region, about 60 kilometres south of Johannesburg, decried: “In our communities, we have seen no rehabilitation, no participation’”.
The Minerals Council was “one of the biggest enemies of South African mining communities”, he avowed to the applause of fellow activists.
After a moment of silence for Mama Ntshangase, the protestors made their way to the main entrance of the Council to present a memorandum of their demands.
As they attempted to enter the building they were doused of pepper spray. The doors were then slammed shut on the coughing, spluttering activists, who broke subsequently broke into chants of “people before profit”.
So, what is the approaching danger that Ntshangase’s vigil keepers mean to alert the rest of us to? And what do we as a society need to learn from this tragedy?
The danger lies in the fact that the state remains willing to sacrifice – figuratively and literally – rural communities for its coal-fired development agenda, one that persists in spite of visible social and environmental devastation, and in spite of the daily growing threat of climate disaster.
This threat, acknowledged in South Africa’s Second National Climate Change Report has become a reality across South Africa, as increasing incidences of severe drought and storms have shown.
Nor is the peril we face limited to climate change. As one activist, a young mother, her arms wrapped around her sleeping baby proclaimed outside the doors of the Council: “We are living the consequences of this crisis.
"Even the pandemic that is wrecking our lives is happening because of the systemic and widespread abuse of the natural world.”
What we, and those who govern us, need to learn from this day of vigils, and learn urgently, is that calls for the reform of mining governance can no longer be ignored.
Insofar as mining policies and regulations were designed to ensure the sustainability and equitability of South Africa’s mining industry, they have failed dismally.
For example, in 2019, major news outlets reported that the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation had found 115 mines operating without water licenses in blatant violation of the National Water Act, consuming water and disposing of effluent free of any government monitoring.
This is a significant increase from 2014, when a mere 39 mines were discovered to be non-compliant.
Another report produced in the same year by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University noted a resounding failure on the part of mining companies to fulfil promises to build houses, or to provide training, childcare or bursaries to mining affected communities.
It also found that most residents lacked any awareness of the social and labour plans that are legally required of mining firms before they can be granted licenses by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR).
This is particularly alarming, given that the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 stipulates that mining companies must develop social and labour plans in consultation with affected communities.
Part of the problem lies in legislative weakness. For example, while the 2002 Act stipulates that mining companies must contribute to socio-economic development, it does not specify how, leaving this determination in the hands of an industry that is primarily concerned with its bottom line.
Nor do any widely agreed minimum requirements or clear guidelines exist for community engagement.
Accordingly, these processes have been deemed “exclusionary and ineffectual” by legal experts.
In addition, the policy context of mining governance is rife with ambiguity. A key problem in this regard is the way that legal roles and responsibilities overlap across national, provincial and local spheres of government, and sometimes come into conflict.
A striking example can be found in the initial application that was submitted in 2007 to mine the (still) contested titanium sands of Xolobeni.
The Department of Water and Environmental Affairs opposed the application, because of the environmental degradation it would cause, and crucially, due to the failure of the mining companies (Australia-based Mineral Commodities, and its subsidiary Transworld Energy and Resources) to address the anticipated damage.
The DMR, which has the authority to grant mining rights, is also charged with ensuring that principles of environmental protection and management, as stipulated in the 2002 Act and the National Environmental Management Act are adhered to.
Based on this authority, the DMR overruled the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs and granted the mining licence – even though the former had - and still has - no official veto power over the latter.
The absurdity of this situation, in which the department responsible for enabling grand-scale environmental degradation is also the department in charge of managing those impacts, could not be more obvious. It also points to a larger problem of political accountability.
The DMR bears ultimate responsibility for monitoring and enforcement of regulations around the social, economic and environmental impacts of mining. In theory - and in law - where mining companies are found to be non-compliant, the DMR is required to use its powers of enforcement, either by taking remedial actions, serving notices, or in the most serious cases, suspending or revoking mining rights.
In practice, however, evidence indicates that the DMR is spectacularly failing, or perhaps, deliberately neglecting, to fulfil its obligations to ensure compliance. The scale of this neglect is astounding, as a TV documentary, “Cutting Edge: Umhlaba Wethu,”, aired 19 January 2021 demonstrates.
Beyond the water license issue, a review in 2017 by the Centre for Applied Legal Rights found that the majority of social and labour plans were bereft of evidence of community participation at any stage of mining projects, from initial design, to operations, to termination. Nor was there evidence of any meaningful engagement with the particular social and economic dynamics of mining affected areas.
It could be argued that these failures on the part of the DMR signify a dearth of necessary organisational capacity. However, as Ben Fine, a well-known critic of the nation’s minerals-energy complex has long argued, the development of institutional capacity in South Africa has largely been a political issue, driven by civil society action and popular protest, rather than the deliberate will of leaders.
State priorities remain focused on undermining, rather than promoting genuine engagement with progressive, transformative grassroots development movements, as those gathered in solidarity at concurrent vigils in Cape Town, and Nelson Mandela Bay on 10 December would doubtless agree.
In this context, calls for the DMR to drastically improve the efficacy with which it carries out its governance duties are indeed welcome. However, if policy and legislation governing the behavior of powerful mining stakeholders remain ambiguous, the situation of mining affected communities in unlikely to improve.
Innovative proposals for improving engagement between the state, mining companies and affected communities abound. They have in fact been circulating in the public domain for years. Multiple scholars and NGOs, including the South African Human Rights Commission for example, have long argued for the development of standards for community engagement around the UN principle of “free, prior and informed consent”, and for these standards to be set in legislation.
To address the problem of overlapping roles across departments and levels of government, the establishment of an intra-governmental framework has also been suggested, to facilitate more effective cooperation amongst all government departments involved with mining governance issues.
So far, however, these proposals have fallen on deaf ears.
Instead, the Minerals Council has sought to extend its influence, announcing on 21 December 2020 a new “strategic partnership” with the Mining Indaba, the world’s largest mining conference. This annual event, attended by political and industry heavyweights from across the continent, is “solely dedicated to the successful capitalisation and development of mining interests in Africa.”
By the looks of the draft programme for the upcoming Indaba in February 2021, discussions related to the social and environmental impacts of mining on communities have been kept firmly off the agenda.
As long as those organs of state responsible for governing the mining industry continue to ignore proposals for improving the governance of mining, and allow industry interests to set policy agendas, there will surely be more killings, and more vigils such as those for Mama Fikile Ntshangase.
An onus therefore falls on key allies of these rural, marginalised activists, in particular on urban-based, (relatively) well-resourced academics like myself. We can certainly join the protests, but our relative power lies in our ability to support and amplify the struggles of rural communities seeking environmental justice and economic self-determination, from our keyboards, via our peer reviewed publications, blogs and op-eds, and until the scourge that is Covid recedes, from our virtual classrooms where we influence and inspire thousands of under- and post-graduate students daily.
In addition, there is a need for legal assistance, which requires donations from generous benefactors to support pro-bono work. Journalists also have a role to play, to ensure cases of injustice and the complicity of corporate and state actors become prominent in the court of public opinion, and thus inspire collective, transformative action.
If we can find ways to cooperate effectively in support of our grassroots foot-soldiers, grief could begin to give way to hope, and the prospect of a peaceful, sustainable future for South Africa may become a reality.
Hali Healy is senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. This article first appeared at People & Nature.
More on People & Nature: