This is an excerpt from the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’s Working Document no 2, published in October 2019.
Xolobeni is a rural village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. If there were no titanium underneath the village and its land, the name Xolobeni would not be known to many people outside the Wild Coast region. And yet, there is titanium, and there is therefore the obligatory multinational mining corporation (the Australia-based firm Mineral Commodities). Because the land is so precious to the people, and because they see themselves as the stewards of the land, they formed the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) to defend their right to land and to the place.
This is theirs, not only by right of property but also because they know that the mining company will eventually destroy the land and further endanger the planet. All of the major themes of our times resonate in the struggle waged by the ACC against not only the Australian mining firm, but also against a government that takes a position with the firm rather than with the people: climate catastrophe, the annihilation of culture, out of control corporations, a compromised state, and the destruction of land and community.
This working document is researched and written by South African journalist Kevin Bloom. Bloom is the author of two powerful books about the African continent – its history and present – as well as its possible futures: Ways of Staying (2010, which won the South African Literary Award) and Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes (2016). The text below, like his books, peels away at the many layers of the conflict around Xolobeni, offering a view of the intertwined contradictions of capitalism.
From Mzamo Dlamini’s front porch there is an uninterrupted view of the gorge that Hollywood director Ed Zwick once chose as a stand-in for hell. The endemic plant life that clings to the banks of the Mzamba River, the sheer cliffs that enclose their own sub-tropical microclimate, the cinematic confluence of water and land and sky, were for Zwick the perfect body double for the alluvial diamond mines of Sierra Leone. It was just a short walk from here in 2006 that Leonardo DiCaprio, flaunting a plausible South African accent, pretended to die at the hands of a mining-funded rebel cartel.
“We always knew that the strategy was to take the three of us out,” Dlamini said, speaking not of the Oscar-nominated Blood Diamond but of the real threats to his life. “Even before 2015 there had been some attempts, which is why I didn’t really like to stay at home. We would hear from our sources, there were times when the hit men would be caught waiting for us.”
By “the three of us”, Dlamini meant himself, Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who back in 2015 had been the three joint leaders of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, the local activist organisation formed in 2007 to keep an Australian prospecting company from mining the titanium-rich dunes of the Pondoland Wild Coast. On 22 March 2016, Rhadebe had been shot dead less than 10 kilometres from here by two assassins posing as policemen. Some months later, Dlamini had resigned from the leadership of the crisis committee to join the municipal council – but not before he had publicly accused Mark Caruso, the chief executive of the Australian company, of sponsoring a violent campaign to break the resistance of the activists.
And so the question for Dlamini, given that the South African government had for years been trying to convince the locals that Caruso’s titanium mine would deliver them from poverty, was this: had his own resistance since been broken?
“The municipality is not so involved in this mining thing,” he said, halfway through that initial interview in December 2018, “you only see them when the minister comes.” It was a statement that spoke of a plotline infinitely more intricate than the one dreamed up by Hollywood. For starters, there was the reference to Gwede Mantashe, South Africa’s then minister of mineral resources, who three months earlier had visited the village of Xolobeni in the heart of the Amadiba region to attend a community meeting.
Two days after the meeting, on 25 September 2018, Amnesty International had issued a report condemning the excessive use of force by the South African police (SAPS). Witness testimony, video footage and photographs revealed how SAPS had used tear gas, stun grenades and death threats to disperse the “peaceful” anti-mining protests. Richard Spoor, the crisis committee’s lawyer, who had asked Minster Mantashe to intervene, had been arrested for crimen injuria – prompting Amnesty International to demand an immediate withdrawal of charges. It all amounted, noted the world’s most powerful human rights organisation, to a basic contempt for the people’s decision to “defend their ancestral lands”.
Then, in late November 2018, there was the judgment handed down by Annali Basson of the North Gauteng High Court. A watershed ruling that placed the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act on an equal footing with the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act, it sided with the applicants from Xolobeni in determining that they – and not the government in Pretoria – had the right to say whether mining could happen in their backyard.
The core of the ruling hinged on the dispute between community consultation, which the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act stipulates as a minimum requirement before a mining right can be granted, and community consent, as stipulated by the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act. The latter won, prompting Mantashe to complain to City Press newspaper that within 10 years there would be no more mining in South Africa. The mining experts at South Africa’s major law firms agreed, citing wholesale divestment and the crippling of the industry as an almost certain consequence of the judgment.
But Dlamini was adamant that these pro-mining types were not his new friends. He had been “deployed” to the ANC-led municipal council, he insisted, so that the crisis committee could have its man on the inside – even if the local council had zero say over decisions made at the national level. “Because in the same way we have people telling us when we are going to be killed,” he said, “we have people telling us that this is never going to end.”
Indeed, in the more than two dozen interviews that went into the reporting for this story, there was no one who believed that the Basson judgment was anywhere near the final chapter. On the contrary, with Mantashe signalling in December 2018 his intention to appeal the judgment – and with the future of the South African mining industry apparently at stake – Basson’s interpretation of the law was seen as the country’s entry into a much larger global fight.
In this context, the crux was those parts of the judgment where reference was made to the rights of “indigenous people” in international law. In other words, while the mining lawyers were objecting to Basson’s citation of treaties that South Africa had not even signed, activists were beginning to refer to Xolobeni as the country’s “Standing Rock”. Like the movement of indigenous Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US, this was now becoming the story of how a small group of rural agitators, branded “anti-development” because of their commitment to the old ways, were standing in the path of state policy. It was becoming the story of the fight for water sovereignty, food sovereignty and the sovereignty of their ancestors’ graves. It was becoming the story of non-violent resistance in the face of a government that was all too willing to crack skulls. And although it had always been these things – the Xolobeni story, after all, had been exhibiting such elements since soon after the Australians arrived on the beaches in 1996 – two more things happened in the final months of 2018 that shifted it all into a global gear.
The first was the IPCC’s, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s, special report on global warming of 1.5°C, which alerted mainstream Western media to the fact that continued abuse of the natural environment was likely to wipe out much of modern civilisation by the end of the 21st century. The second was the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil on a right-wing populist ticket that promised further reclamation of the Amazon rainforest – already losing its status as one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks – for mining and commercial agriculture.
Climate change, in more ways than just rising oceans and swelling deserts, was making the world smaller, perhaps even simpler. As in Dakota, the parallels with Xolobeni were there for anyone with the eyes to see. While Brazil’s indigenous leaders had been hoping that Bolsonaro’s war talk would turn out to be an election ploy, by February 2019 their hopes would lie in ruins. In the three months following his election, native Amazonian communities would see their healthcare centres set ablaze and their villages firebombed. By late July 2019, around the time that the alleged murder of an indigenous chief by gold miners was making global headlines, data would confirm that Bolsonaro’s policies were deforesting the Amazon at the rate of three football fields per minute. “The difference is that now these attacks are institutionalised,” Angela Amanakwa Kaxuyana, an indigenous activist in Brazil, explained in February, “as in the president himself incites hatred.”
Mining and commercial agriculture in the Global South had found its earthly avatar in Bolsonaro. If the situation was not quite as dire in South Africa, exactly how far removed from the Brazilian lodestar were we? The quest for answers to this question would coincide with the release of several unprecedented reports – all backed by the scientific method – that pointed to ancient and indigenous farming practices as one of the most effective bulwarks against humanity’s growing list of existential threats.