Four men suspected of attacking a group of anti-mining activists in December were granted R2 000 bail after a five-day hearing in the Mbizana Magistrate's Court on Monday.
Local anti-mining group Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) issued statements in December alleging that the Wild Coast area well-known for a decade-long fight over mining rights had been subjected to acts of intimidation, violent attacks and arson, which culminated in the arrest of the four men on December 30.
Over 22km of coastal dune, about 10km south of the Sol Kerzner's Wild Coast Sun, is rich in the space age mineral titanium, but is also popular as an eco-tourism destination, with Mtentu Lodge on its doorstep and Mkambati Nature Reserve just across the river.
Void of any media representation, except for social worker and writer John Clarke, the court proceedings were packed with over 100 ACC supporters every day, some of whom were allegedly the victims of the attacks.
The four accused, Xolile Dimane, Thembile Ndovela, Mdlele Simthandile Bhele and Mto Mzukhona Bhele, face schedule six offence charges of attempted murder as well as robbery in homesteads they allegedly entered during nightly shooting raids in Mdatya village.
Dimane is allegedly an employee at Tormin, which is owned by Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC). This is the same company that has a majority stake in Transworld Energy and Minerals Resources (TEM), which has been in a protracted decade-long battle to mine Xolobeni.
Are prospective miners causing flare up?
The ACC and the Umgungundlovu Traditional Authority believes TEM's renewed bid to get mining rights has caused a flare up of tension to push anti-mining leaders out of the area.
ACC chairperson Nonhle Mbuthuma told Fin24 that her group "wants to make sure the world can see how these mining companies are dividing our community and creating violence".
"Our community, its youth and the thousand members of our crisis committee are boiling, but all are under firm advice and orders by the leaders not to be provoked into violence," she said in a previous December statement.
Prospect miner defends his bid
However, MRC chairperson Mark Caruso told Fin24 last week that his company has "always abided by the law in efforts to gain mining rights at Xolobeni, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise".
"The company does not condone nor has it ever been involved in any form whatsoever of violence or intimidation against anti-mining groups, or any groups for that matter," he said.
Caruso said that TEM had submitted a mining right application to Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) on 4 March 2015. This process involves the submission of a scoping report within 44 days of the application, which was accepted by the DMR, he said.
Anti-mining groups hampering EIA - Caruso
"The company must undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and submit an EIA report inclusive of specialist reports and an Environmental Management Plan (EMP). This is currently being undertaken and is due for submission on or around April 2016," said Caruso.
"Accordingly, the DMR is yet to receive the full EIA and EMP. This process is being hindered by the anti-mining groups championed by John Clarke."
"There is a prescriptive process, which involves public participation (PP) by all interested and affected parties, (IAPs). This allows all IAPs to be heard in public forums and their comments recorded and submitted with the EIA.
"It also assists the company in dealing with live issues in terms of technical, environmental, socio-economic, archaeological and addressing them in the context of regulation and development as well as social impact."
Ntlahla Hlebo, the African National Congress (ANC) local councilor for ward 24 within the Mbizama Municipality, told Fin24 on Monday that his leadership needed to listen to the wish of the people in the area.
"Mining shouldn't go ahead," he said. "The reasons are clear. This open cast mining has short-term benefits, but in the long-term it will compromise the environmental security of the land, especially because we want to focus on tourism and agriculture."
How Caruso got hooked on Wild Coast - Clarke
Clarke told Fin24 that 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of "Perth mining entrepreneur" Caruso's first visit to the Pondoland Wild Coast to commence negotiations with government officials for mining rights.
"He was enticed by the assurance that the '10th largest deposit of heavy minerals in the world' on the Amadiba Coastal Area on the Pondoland Wild Coast were available.
"Richards Bay Minerals had relinquished the prospecting rights because the remoteness and inaccessibility of the minerals meant that they would not make a profit without a smelter nearby," he said. "The RBM plant 300 km's on the KZN north coast was just too far away."
He said mining rights were awarded in 2008, but former minerals minister Susan Shabangu was forced to suspend them and then revoke them completely in 2011, "without the ACC even having to go to court".
Local authorities against mining
The proposed mining area is a substructure of the Amadiba Traditional Authority with its own "Komkhulu" (great place), it's own headwoman, (Duduzile Cynthia Baleni) and a council of advisors elected by local residents to preside over communal land and environmental rights, according to Clarke.
"In this, duty headwoman Baleni is stoutly supported by the Queen and the Princess of amaMpondo Royal Family Queen Regent Masobhuza Sigcau and Crown Princess Wezizwe Sigcau, who since the death of King Mpondombini Sigcau in March 2013 have presided over the AmaMpondo ase Qaukeni nation."
These figures are all against mining in the area and would prefer tourism to thrive. The ACC alleged that headwoman Baleni was targeted during the attacks, but was not hurt. There are others within the traditional authority who are pro-mining, according to the ACC.
Tormin employees strike
While Caruso has revived efforts to get the mining rights to Xolobeni, the Department of Mineral Resources secured him the rights to a much smaller deposit on the Western Cape coast 400 km north of Cape Town, known as the Tormin mineral sands project.
On September 25, GroundUp reported that 27 people were arrested during a protest for higher wages at Tormin.
Thembela Nkwalase, a single mother of five, has been employed as a cleaner at Tormin since December last year. "In August, my salary was R1 200. What can I do with that? It's only enough for food and electricity," she told GroundUp.
While workers continue their plea for better working conditions at Tormin, the future of Xolobeni's mine continues its long and rough ride.
The trial date in Mbizana is set to begin on 12 February 2016.