The people of Umgungundlovu, sometimes called Xolobeni after one of the five villages in the area, won a watershed land rights victory on 22 November when the North Gauteng High Court ruled that customary land cannot be mined without the community’s consent.
But community members are adamant that their victory against the Australian mining company, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources, and the mineral resources department, is not the end of their fight to retain control over the land on which they’ve lived for centuries.
Rusty-coloured, titanium-rich dunes, which Transworld had long sought to strip, emerge from the rolling hills surrounding the Komkhulu (Great Place) of Umgungundlovu. On the morning of 20 November, two days before the community’s landmark court victory, Mbizana Mayor Daniswa Mafumbatha was slated to speak at the Komkhulu about the N2 Wild Coast toll road at a meeting she had requested.
“No” to toll road
Some communities in Mpondoland have been convinced of the benefits of the N2, one of the 18 strategic integrated projects government says will boost economic development and services in South Africa’s most impoverished regions. But many remain resolute against the highway running through their land. In Umgungundlovu, the community has long argued that the toll road is being built to facilitate the titanium mining they have fought against in court.
The more than a hundred community members who arrived at the Komkhulu, some of whom walked up to 15 kilometres to hear the mayor speak, were left disappointed when she failed to show up.
Thokozana Mthwa, 57, was one of the Umgungundlovu farmers who attended the meeting, told New Frame that she planned to tell the mayor that the N2, which she says will have devastating effects on her family for generations, will “not come here”. Mthwa worries that the fields she ploughs will be carved apart by the highway and her family’s livestock will be killed.
Umgungundlovu has a long history of resistance to externally imposed decisions on land.
During the Mpondo revolts, between 1950 and 1962, rebels used caves set among the cliffs along the nearby Mnyameni River as hiding spots during their resistance against apartheid-era “betterment” schemes. Many people from Umgungundlovu participated in the revolt to ward off the regime’s displacement of communities and the culling of their cattle.
The revolt was recalled throughout the community meeting, which was held in Mafumbatha’s absence. At one point, a man seated at the back of the meeting stood up and called out: “Our great-great-grandfathers died for this land. It is better that we all die fighting!”
Back to court, again
Community resistance against the N2 will now be tested in the North Gauteng High Court.
Today, the court will hear an application to review and set aside the decisions of first the deputy director-general and later the minister of environmental affairs to grant national roads agency Sanral the environmental authorisation required to build the highway.
According to the application, made by a number of coastal Amadiba residents and communities, the N2 “will run through the middle of their communities, dividing them in two as effectively as a wall”. The application argues that numerous procedural errors were made when the environmental authorisation was granted.
It also contends that possible alternative routes for the highway (some coastal communities want the road to be built further inland) were not properly considered. The financial benefits of the proposed route, for instance, are yet to be conclusively proven.
The costs of two mega-bridges over the Mtentu and Msikaba rivers are included in the budgets for Sanral’s preferred route, but the costs of various smaller bridges that would need to be built, including one over the Mzamba River, are overlooked.
But the costs of the Mzamba bridge, and others, are included in estimates of what an inland route – as proposed by Umgungundlovu’s coastal communities – would cost, thereby inflating the proposed costs of an inland route when compared with Sanral’s coastal preference.
New highway threatens traditional life
According to Nonhle Mbuthuma, a founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, who hails from Sigidi, which is one of the community applicants in the case, the planned route for the highway poses a threat to tilling and pastoral livelihoods in Umgungundlovu. She says that these are inextricable from the land. “We have never been supported by anybody. But we have been supported by the land.”
Another endangered pillar of support is the Umgungundlovu community’s social life, according to Mbuthuma. “We share everything. If someone is crying at your neighbour, you attend. When someone is sick, you attend. You touch one person, you touch the whole community here,” she says. But Mbuthuma fears the N2 will cut the community “in two”.
The looming court battle is not the only community-led resistance faced by Sanral’s N2 project. While Mpondoland has historically been a reserve of cheap black labour for mineral extraction further north – first on the gold fields of the Witwatersrand and later on the platinum belt – one amaMpondo community member says that they have become surplus to the labour requirements of a major developmental project in their own backyard.
Community halts mega-bridge construction
Construction on the Mtentu River mega-bridge, which began in January, has been shut down by community members from the village of Jama since 1 November. The community members contend, among other things, that Sanral has broken promises regarding the local jobs the bridge would create.
In initial negotiations between Sanral and the contractors bidding for the Mtentu Bridge tender, contractors had committed to spending at least 30% of the project funds on subcontractors from local small, medium and micro enterprises. But this figure was revised down to 7% during a presentation in August to update stakeholders on progress made. The original 30% target was deemed “not feasible to achieve”.
The R1.6 billion tender awarded for the bridge’s construction eventually went to a joint venture including the Austrian firm Strabag, in part because nothing like it has ever been built in the country. The scale of the bridge, which will be propped up by cantilevers over the river’s lush indigenous ravine, is unprecedented in South Africa.
The other party in the joint venture is financially troubled South African construction giant Aveng Grinaker. Aveng Grinaker/Strabag were given 40 months to complete the Mtentu Bridge, which means the ongoing Jama shutdown has now cost Sanral close to R40 million.