South Africa: Be Prepared to Die When Fighting Injustice - Xolobeni Leader Nonhle Mbuthuma

Amadiba Crisis Committee leader, Nonhle Mbuthuma.
11 December 2018
interview

Johannesburg — As the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women activists around the world were celebrated for being at the forefront of the battle for human rights in 2018. Women activists who risked their lives and freedoms to bring to light human rights injustices. allAfrica's Sethi Ncube spoke to one such woman - South African community activist Nonhle Mbuthuma who's leading the fight against an Australian mining company which wants to mine titanium on their ancestral land of Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape province. Around 5,000 people may be forcibly evicted if the company is allowed to mine the land. They could lose their homes, livelihoods and whole way of being.

Mbuthuma is part of the Amadiba traditional community, who have communal rights to land on South Africa's Eastern Cape. She suffers harassment for defending the rights of her community. She and her community founded Amadiba Crisis Committee to unite people across five villages to push back. Since then, she's been continually intimidated and threatened. Another community leader was shot dead in 2016 and Mbuthuma was next on the "hit list". She believes the threats are an attempt to silence her and force her to flee her land - land that was her grandmother's, who inherited it from her grandparents.

Previously, consultation rather than consent had been practiced and touted not only in South Africa, but globally, as the way to include people in development projects on their communal or ancestral land. On November 22, 2018, the North Gauteng High Court ruled that a mining-affected community will no longer be told how a project will proceed.

What were the events that led up to the Xolobeni land victory?

This victory comes after more than 15 years of us fighting on the ground against the mining company to say that no we don't want this type of mining and development. Whatever we said, it was clear for us that it does not make sense to the mining company together with the Department of Minerals and Energy because they just kept sending the mining company to come and consult us even if we said no. That is why we decided to take a stand now that it is better to take our own government to court  to claim our own rights, that we have a right to say no, we have a right to choose our own development, why all the time development is always coming from the top, it's top-down approach. After the court judgment handed down on November 22, we celebrated, we had hope, it gave us hope after 1994 the year we got our democracy, that yes this is the democracy we were talking about. This is the democracy we were looking for in South Africa, this is the democracy that we were fighting for. That our citizens as South Africans will be protected by our own laws not that all the time the laws are protecting the mining companies

But seemingly even if it's a victory, a good victory, it's not only the victory of the people of Xolobeni, it's a victory for all people all over the world because what is happening in Xolobeni is not happening there only, it's happening all over the world. Where there is mining, communities are being affected, their rights are being violated for  example the Marikana situation, if you look at Marikana they are saying mining is a good thing but why are people living in shacks. Go to the West Coast where an Australian company is mining there and the mountain is collapsed, environmental issues are being violated, where is the department of minerals? They are no longer there to enforce the law, we just realise that instead of enforcing the law they are promoting mining which is going to be a problem as a country if the Department of Mineral Resources is promoting mining because there will be more environmental issues that are violated if they are not regulated.

What was it that propelled you to become a leader on this issue of community rights?

Honestly, I can say history has a way of repeating itself, if where you are you have a history, your history will guide you, it will tell you where to go. It's not that the people of Xolobeni were cleverer that other communities. We are coming from a rough history, during the 1950s during the Mpondo revolt where our land was about to be taken away from our own fathers and mothers, but they fought. They were executed in Pretoria and buried in one grave but they did not give up. Those who were not killed were offered money for their land but they refused because their next generations were not going to benefit. That's why even today I'm strong enough because I know that if they had taken money at that time I wouldn't be having that peaceful environment, big land and free space today.

What would you say to other people in your situation who want to confront injustice?

I'd say they need to stand up, when you fight injustice you have to sacrifice your life. If you are not ready to do that, you are not going to fight injustice. It needs people who are brave and ready to sacrifice because fighting injustice is a life and death matter. Because you are not just fighting for yourself, other people will live a better life, it is not about me but about us.

What should the South African government do to address the land rights issue?

It will be better if the South Africa government put the lives of people first than profits and to not speak left and walk right because at this stage, the land issue is a burning issue but we feel that they are not going deeper to protect our land from being taken away from us because on every corner land is being taken but they are talking in parliament saying that they are expropriating land without compensation and giving it back to the people but who are these people they are giving the land? Right now they are taking away the land from us as we speak, they must stop using our traditional leaders as gatekeepers of taking our land, to push this Traditional Courts Bill to say that the chief is the one who's going to make a decision. That is unconstitutional, they must practice what they preach. We have the most beautiful constitution in the world, we have freedom of speech, we have rights now those things must be implemented not the other way round.

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