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In South Africa, tribal communities feel threat of titanium mine

In South Africa, tribal communities living on the country's famous strip at the Eastern cape called the Wild Coast worry that a proposed multi-million dollar titanium mine will trample their homes. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Martin Seemungal reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the last untouched stretches of South Africa's famed "Wild Coast" is at the center of a battle that pits extraction-industry development against a pristine environment. It is also neighbor against neighbor among a people struggling to hold on to a centuries-old way of life. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Martin Seemungal has our report.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Their message is defiant, "no" to mining in their community.

  • Nonhle Mbuthuma:

    It's going to destroy our way of life completely.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Tensions are high on this day in Xolobeni. South Africa's Minister of Mineral Resources is visiting, he wants to hear from all sides. There are dozens of heavily armed police and within minutes. Stun grenades and tear gas, chaos; another twist in a saga that's been going on for over a decade. A few miles away, the source of the controversy. Stunning red dunes on one of the last untouched stretches of South Africa's so called "'wild coast." It is sparsely populated but home to an ethnic group with a rich cultural history and distinct language: the Pondo people. They call it Pondoland and they have lived here for centuries. To the people of Pondoland, the colours here symbolize the blood of the people, the importance of their ancestral land. But the redness is also a marker, these hills contain extremely rich deposits of a widely used metal. Titanium. It is among the top ten deposits in the world. Its potential annual revenue is estimated at 180 million dollars. An Australian mining company, Mineral Resources Commodities, MRC, won the rights to develop the Xolobeni site in 2008. Resistance to the application began the previous year when the Amadiba Crisis Committee was formed. There are 12 people on the executive and there are 3000 members from the community. Siya Ndovela is a member of the committee, often called the ACC.

  • Siya Ndovela:

    Once the mining comes all this nature you can see around here. It will be destroyed, you won't see it again. Even our great grandchildren they won't see it, so for us we have to save this nature, we have to save this land.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Save it, from being turned into this. A titanium dredge mine on South Africa's coast further north has had a dramatic impact on the land. It's been operational for decades, leaving no doubt among many that the same will happen here. The proposed mine site at Xolobeni covers 14 miles of coastline and goes over a mile inland in places. An estimated 70 families, just over 600 people would have to be relocated. Xamandla Mtwa can see those red dunes from his house.

  • Xamandla Mtwa:

    If I move from here I lose my life. It will change completely.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Titanium isn't the answer they say, tourism is. The pristine coastline, a perfect environment to develop a thriving ecotourism industry with long term potential.

  • Nonhle Mbuthuma:

    Mining is just a short term as they told us the lifespan is 22 years and after 22 years the land is being destroyed and its irreversible.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    In the face of community resistance and its own environmental questions, the South African government withdrew the original approval of 2008. Three years ago the Australian company re-applied and enlisted the support of the Traditional Pondo Chief here, Lunga Baleni and created Xolco, a community based company to give MRC a local footprint. But the crisis committee says the chief cannot consent to mining on behalf of the people, instead he must relay the will of the people and in this case they argue, the people weren't properly consulted. They took the issue to court in April demanding that the people must have the right to say "no." In November, a South Africa High Court judge ruled in their favor stating mining rights cannot be granted without the full and formal 'Consent' of the community. Johan Lorenzen is a lawyer representing the crisis committee.

  • Johan Lorenzen:

    Whereas the chief would traditionally have a consultative role and facilitate the gathering of consensus by the directly affected people, he's instead become a director in the mining company and has signed an affidavit indicating that his office will receive four percent of revenue once the mining starts.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Chief Baleni did not respond to repeated attempts to be interviewed. Traditional Chiefs were given extra powers under apartheid. But nothing changed when apartheid ended nearly 25 years ago, when Nelson Mandela's African National Congress swept to power, power it still holds. Today there is frustration with the ANC. Nonhle Mbuthuma says her grandfather was part of the Pondoland rebellion in the 1960's, a famous uprising against apartheid. In the worst clash 11 people were killed, 58 were injured. Apartheid ended in the early 90's and Mbaathuma celebrated the first all race election in 1994, but is disillusioned now.

  • Nonhle Mbuthuma:

    Before 94 it was better because we know our enemy, now our own people that we hope they are going to do the right thing for us as a people they push us away from the land.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Gwede Mantashe, South Africa's mineral resources minister, is an important advocate for the mine. He disagrees with the recent court decision and has filed an application to appeal it. In coming weeks the judge is expected to rule if the appeal will be accepted. He believes where there are deposits there must be mining. In the case of Xolobeni he says, it would improve the lives of people in one of the poorest areas in the region, as would development of the tourist industry.

  • Gwede Mantashe:

    To deprive such a community right to development is actually injustice, in terms of that community it is not mining vs tourism. It is tourism and mining together.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    The anti-mining lobby disputes that scenario. Any mining, they say, along this beautiful coastline would make it impossible to develop tourism. But there are some Pondo people in favor of mining.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    This is a community built on traditions that have thrived for generations because it is fiercely united. But over the last ten years that unity has eroded, today the community is more divided than ever over mining. Not just more divided, but more violent leaving many fearful. Several people have died in recent years under what the community believes are suspicious circumstances. Bonekile, who asked us not to use her last name, says she's against the mine and also afraid of her pro-mining neighbors.

  • Bonekile:

    The people who support the mine so many times, or many times, they come to fight us, kill us using their guns, their poison.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Xolo Boiesa alleges that her son was poisoned, murdered because he opposed the mine. His name was Jabulani and the community believes many others died for the same reason. But there have never been any convictions or arrests to corroborate the allegations. Sikhosipi Radebe was shot to death by armed men 2 years ago. He was the leader of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. Nonhle Mbuthuma says she spoke to him just before his murder, he told her about a hitlist, and she was on it. To this day she restricts her movements and often has a bodyguard.

  • Nonhle Mbuthuma:

    I don't have muscles to fight but when it comes to tell the truth I do have all that qualification to tell the world what is happening. That is why I was number one on the hit list.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Organizations involved with the mining companies could not be reached for comment, but in the past they have vigorously denied any involvement with the killings. NewsHour Weekend asked MRC Australia for an interview about the violence. The company refused an interview on camera. But Peter Torre, a company director, did respond via email saying:

  • Martin Seemungal:

    "In relation to the allegation of violence, the company has no comment to make on this other than to say it does not condone violence in any form." The mining issue has become so divisive that it has split families here. Mavo Ndovela says he can't go to family funerals or any ceremonies.

  • Mavo Ndovela:

    I hate the division in the community. Even my own brother is pro-mining. I can't do anything with my brother or his family.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Those that favor mining argue it will bring desperately needed jobs. Siyabonga says he has been unemployed for over a year.

  • Siyabonga:

    It would be good from my side you know.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Would you want to work in the mine?

  • Siyabonga:

    Yeah, because I used to be a mineworker before.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Following the death of Radebe 2 years ago, the government declared a moratorium on all matters related to the mining issue, effectively freezing the application process. But the Mineral Resources minister says the moratorium cannot continue indefinitely.

  • Gwede Mantashe:

    We have accepted that right for people to say no. But we say those who have a right to say no must accept the right of others to say yes.

  • Martin Seemungal:

    Yes to the promise of prosperity and development; or no to mining, to protect a way of life that has existed for centuries.

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