Time to divest from murder: Fossil Free SA condemns the brutal murder of anti-coal activist Fikile Ntshangase + a call to action

Call to Action

In support of groundWork’s recent request “for a speedy and urgent investigation to arrest and put on trial those responsible for the murder of Mama Fikile Ntshangase”, we are sending a follow-up letter to President Ramaphosa and Minister of Police Bheki Cele in support of groundWork and the Somkhele community.

Please read our letter and sign your name onto the letter if you would like to support this call. You can read on below for our statement on this tragedy.

Our Official Statement

Fossil Free South Africa condemns the brutal killing of anti-coal activist Fikile Ntshangase in KwaZulu-Natal on 22 October, in front of her grandchild. This appalling murder was predictable, as it followed several beatings and attempted attacks of community anti-mining activists opposed to the Somkhele operations of Tendele Coal Mining. Activists had repeatedly requested protection but were brushed off by local police.

The SA Human Rights Commission has in the past specifically condemned Tendele Coal for not providing compensation for land effectively taken from community members, taking advantage of the fact that community members only have land access via “customary rights”.  

The SA HRC has now laid the blame for Mam Ntshangase’s death squarely at the feet of government: “These scenarios would be avoided if the State ensured that there were no gaps in the legislation, the existing legislation was enforced and that economic activity does not always take precedence over human lives.

”As NGO groundWork relates, “The mine has succeeded in splitting the community into a few beneficiaries who are decision-makers on one side and the masses who are left with nothing on the other side.” (See groundWorks’ letter to government calling for action on this case here.) 

In 2018, Mining and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe visited the area and made it clear he was not interested in hearing the voices of community members. In April this year, local activist Sabelo Dladla, a young leader with the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) that is challenging the expansion of Tendele coal mine, narrowly escaped being murdered.

These incidents reveal the apparent impotence of the SA Human Rights Commission which has undertaken extensive past investigations in the area; and the apparent impunity enjoyed by the defenders of the mine.

This killing shows that the South African fossil fuel industry can be as deadly to communities as its global peers. The 2020 Defending Tomorrow report from Global Witness revealed that mining, particularly fossil fuel extraction, was the industry most culpable for activist deaths around the world: “Communities opposing carbon intensive oil, gas and coal projects faced continued threats.”

The killing of Fikile Ntshangase shows the South African government’s repeated failure to stand up for the rights of ordinary people affected by mining activities, as the SA Human Rights Commission has made clear. It also illustrates the profound general disregard for human rights shown by the fossil fuel industry which is breaking the global climate, polluting air and water, and corrupting both officials and the public discourse on climate change. We don’t yet know who is responsible for this killing, but it seems that Tendele Coal has done little to stop the campaign of intimidation that surrounds its operations. It has smeared community members who have opposed its operations as “stand[ing] in the way of future development” and created a climate of fear around possible job losses.

We call on the government to halt all operations by mines that have not comprehensively addressed the grievances of the communities they displace and affect. Note that the climate effects of unrestrained coal mining make it an automatic abuse of human rights.

In 2020, as we face racing climate breakdown, no coal mining operation without a net-zero phase-out plan should be legal. Divestment is not just about divestment from oil, gas and coal; it is about divestment from murder.

Tracey Davies of Just Share has written an eloquent account of some of the circumstances surrounding Fikile Ntshangase’s death, in the Financial Mail, and we urge you to read it. The Somkhele operation shows starkly that “stakeholder capitalism” and the “exponential rise” of environmental, social and governance (ESG) integration into financial decision-making are often more about PR than about impact on the ground.

Reports outlining the climate of fear in around the SA mining industry and problems created by the mining industry  South African Human Rights Commission:2018report on the damage mining in the country is posing to human rights is unequivocal: 

“[T]he mining sector is riddled with challenges related to land, housing, water, [and] the environment” because of government “failure to monitor compliance, poor enforcement, and a severe lack of coordination.

Human Rights Watch, 16 April 2019: “We Know Our Lives are in Danger” Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities 

“The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies.

Benchmarks Foundation, 2014: ‘South African Coal Mining: Corporate Grievance Mechanisms, Community Engagement Concerns and Mining Impacts’

“Mpumalanga is at the heart of South Africa’s maize triangle and coal mining is drastically reducing the land available for the growth of maize and it is also destroying the water required for farming,” says John Capel, Executive Director for the Bench Marks Foundation. 

Note: The integration of “ESG” into financial decision-making is both a positive and negative trend. It is positive when it integrates genuine and substantive issues into company assessments, but negative when merely reporting on issues or when window-dressing a lack of substantive action. Unfortunately, it’s often very hard to tell the difference.

Background on Somkhele

The Somkhele and Fuleni communities neighbouring the Hluluwe iMfolozi Park have taken Tendele Coal Mining to court in their resistance against ongoing alleged illegal mining activities by the company. Somkhele mine is 85km northwest of Richards Bay. It is run by Tendele Coal Mining, an 80%-owned subsidiary ofPetmin. 20% of TCM is held by a trust supposedly for the benefit of the local community and employees. The mine’s location can be viewed via the Environmental Justice Atlas.  More information about the community’s struggle against TCM is available on the website of Youens Attorneys.