Opponents of the plan to mine titanium in the Xolobeni area in the Eastern Cape fear for their lives after the chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe, was assassinated last night.
Rhadebe was shot eight times, including in the head, outside his house in Lurholweni township at Mbizana.
Crisis Committee member Nonhle Mbuthuma told GroundUp that just before his death Rhadebe had phoned her to check on her safety and that of another committee member, Mzamo Dlamini. He had spoken of a hit list on which his was the first name and hers and Dlamini's the second and third. An hour and a half later, he was dead.
Mbuthuma said the hitmen had come in a white Polo with a rotating blue lamp on the roof. Two men had knocked at the door saying they were police officers. Rhadebe had died defending his young son, who had witnessed the murder. His son and his wife were hospitalised.
"After one year of threats and attacks, we have been waiting for something like this to happen," said Mbuthuma in a statement issued after the assassination.
The Xolobeni community opposes plans by mining company TEM, a subsidiary of Australian mining company MRC, to mine titanium on their land. Community members say the mine will mean the removal of people from the land and the destruction of their livelihoods.
The Amadiba Crisis Committee accuses MRC and its local partners and allies of using violence to intimidate the community into accepting the mine. The committee says police in the area are on the side of the mining company and empowerment partner Zamile Qunya.
Mbuthuma warned police in February that community members feared that their lives were in danger. "I believe that they have reason to do so, based on the events of the last few months," she said in a long statement handed to the police in Mbizana on 11 February.
In the statement she describes months of violence against opponents to the mine, including armed attacks against community members in May and December last year, threats and attacks against the headwoman, Cynthia Baleni, who opposes the titanium mine, and raids by police against opponents to the mine. Several people have been injured, some seriously.
In one case, at least one of the attackers was identified as being not from the community but from the Tormin mine in the Western Cape, owned by MRC's partner MSR.
Four people were arrested and charged after the December shootings but were released on bail in January.
Since then, says Mbuthuma, police have been intimidating the Amadiba community and leaders in nightly raids.
For a year, she says, the police has refused to cooperate with the traditional authorities to stop the violence.
"We have tried to call for help from the police. But there has been nothing."
A spokesperson for MRC said the company did not condone violence in any form "and it is tragic that a man has lost his life regardless of the circumstances, which are yet to be established".
"The company is in no way implicated in any form whatsoever in this incident. Statements to the contrary are simply unfounded," the spokesperson said. "This company will not engage in any activity that incites violence."
This article has been updated with comment from the company.