Community exchange visit: Fuleni to Somkhele

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By Sifiso Dladla

Sunday, the 19th of October 2014 will go down in the history books of the Global Environmental Trust, Save Our Imfolozi Wilderness Campaign, Community and Wilderness Alliance and all stakeholders involved in preventing the proposed mine in the Fuleni reserve as the turning point because indeed it was in the true sense of the word.

Prior to this visit, we have been engaging with the Fuleni community extensively – holding meeting after meeting and informing them of what living next to a coal mine or any other mine entails. We brought into their community media personnel, both broadcast and print and both local and international, to expose what is about to happen in this place. We brought people from the neighboring Somkhele, Nseleni and eMpangeni communities who were eloquent during the Mining Dialogue we hosted in Ntuthunga 2 in August. We even went to the extent of bringing in people as far afield as Marikana who are experiencing living next to a mine every day of their lives.

Now Sunday the 19th had arrived and this was about actually seeing firsthand everything that we have been telling the Fuleni community about and what they have learned from us. More powerful than all these preparatory interventions was to actually visit Somkhele because what the eye sees and the ear hears is what the mind believes.

I travelled to Fuleni using public transport early on Saturday, 18th October 2014, so that I could make sure the transport and food for the visit was organized. I was helped by Phila Ndimande, the elected mining committee representative for Ocilwane and main spokesperson for the affected Fuleni communities. We also contacted the other two community mining representatives from Nthuthunga 1 and 2 to check they had organized their people and that everyone was ready.

It was an early bright Sunday morning for three of the four Fuleni villages who made their way in three Quantum taxis. Twenty people from each village, making a total of 60 people, were amongst the fortunate ones to be selected to participate in the visit. We arrived at Somkhele, promptly at 10h00 as arranged, where we met at a local high school situated between Dubelenkunzi, where mining is currently taking place, and Machibini village, where the mining operations of the Somkhele mine started in 2007/8.

There was nothing to show that these were communities living next to a profitable mine. Even the school that we met in is so close to the mine that you hear the mining operations from a classroom on a Sunday! You cannot help but think of what happens on a weekday! The school is dilapidated and windows are broken from the nearby blasting and many have fallen out. The shortage of desks and furniture cannot go unnoticed.

We were received by Mr Dladla, his committee and community members of the aforementioned villages as well as from Myeki village, where Somkhele intends mining next. The purpose of us meeting here was to clarify for the Somkhele communities why we brought the communities from Fuleni and the critical role they could play in passing relevant information to the Fuleni communities. This visit also helped to sustain the relationships we forged during the mining dialogue and other meetings and the MACUA visit to Johannesburg for the Marikana march. This was the first time some people were seeing each other again and they were very happy to have the chance to re-connect. More than 50 people from Somkhele participated in the exchange.

We were also joined by Sheila Berry and Rob Symons from GET SOME and three actors involved in the docu-drama for Ezemvelo – Mpume Mthombeni, Menzi Mkhwane and Simo Majola. They saw this as a good opportunity to research the situation in Somkhele to ensure the drama accurately portrayed the problems Somkhele were facing as a result of the open cast coal mine.

Mr. Dladla led the meeting with a brief background of the conflict that has escalated between the communities and the mine and eluded to the fact of unfulfilled promises the mine made before they started operations. He reminded people of the big responsibility we have to take care of the earth entrusted to us by God and how the Somkhele communities were failing in their duty because the mine ignored their voices and disrespected their wishes. He then went on to mention the areas we were going to visit and the significance of visiting those places in particular. Mr. Gednezar Dladla mentioned that the iNdunas were informed of our visit hence people should be free in interacting with local community members as much as they can. We then proceeded with the business of the day:

SITES VISITED:
Our first site visit was the cemetery in Dubelenkunzi, where the mine acquired land from the tribal authority to make a grave site where graves that needed to be exhumed to make way for the mine could be relocated. Here a lot of emotions were triggered as Mr. Gednezar Dladla guided and led the talk of the significance of bringing us here by stating that the mine had promised to pay one head of cattle and a goat for each grave that was going to be relocated so that people could perform the traditional ritual for informing the deceased, who becomes an ancestor to the family, as to why they are being exhumed and where they are reburied now. This has not been done. Instead the mine has given each homestead a cow and a goat, no matter how many graves were moved. This means families have been unable to afford to perform the required ceremony for each ancestor. Amongst the promise list for exhumation was that every single grave was going to be installed with a tombstone at the expense of the mine. That was not the case when we saw the unmarked gravesites.

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The Fuleni visitors were shocked to be exposed to the conditions of the graves. There were no tombstones erected and all that was done was some of the graves were laid out in neat same size graves, bordered with bricks, but with no identification of who is buried in which grave or the age of the person. This raised the question from the Fuleni visitors: “How does one know who is buried where?”. One could not even see all the graves in this site because of the state they were in with tall weeds growing on them. Only a handful of graves were fenced with the bricks with the majority being collapsing mounds of soil. As we were driving to the next grave site someone from Fuleni asked me “Can the next one be worse than this?” My reply was: “Yes, if you allow the mine in your area it is going to be worse than this.” I didn’t get any response after that.

We went to our second grave site between the two villages again of Dubelenkunzi and Machibini. The mine fenced off a part of someone’s land for the reburials. These graves are behind the barbed wire boundary of the fence of the mine, which means people cannot get to these graves and, even worse, the ancestors and family members whose bodies were exhumed from the tranquil graves in their familiar yards within their homesteads will not be able to rest because they have been reburied next to the mine. The worst part of this site is that the owner of the land wants his land bank as he wasn’t even consulted when the mine extended their fence and used his land for reburial without his consent. A legal battle is in the pipeline to address this as the mine doesn’t want to engage with the land owner. All he gets from the mine when trying to enquire why it happened like this is “Speak to your tribal authority”.

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Colwyn Thomas and his film crew, Greg and Sophia, joined us at the second grave site. They were there to document the visit for GET and Grrrowd. Rob Symons was also taking photos and I took some pix on my phone.

Our next stop was interacting with residents of the Machibini village where the mine started its operations and people were relocated but never received any money as form of compensation for being moved off their extensive homesteads and moved instead to a village setting where they no longer have sufficient land for agriculture or to keep livestock. The mine built them houses at their own discretion without consulting the community as to what their preferences would be. These houses are small and not very far from the mine, which means they are still subjected to the negative impacts of mining such as cracking of houses from the blasting; chocking black dust that pollutes the air, their water and dirties their washing and their homes; an increase in asthma and respiratory problems requiring expensive trips to the clinic and medication; – this is to mention but a few. We were also shown the poor sewage system that the mine installed. Almost every house has blocked pipes and the raw sewage that mixes with water from leaking water pipes poses a health risk to children who play in these contaminated pools. The mine refuses to fix or maintain the unsuitable and inadequate sewage system it installed or to repair the cracked houses or to compensate the people for the expense of fixing these problems themselves.

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All the residents from Somkhele villages affected by the mine complain that they find themselves worse off than before the mine arrived with its promises of jobs and making the people rich. The same poverty is seen in the area. The only people who are getting rich are a few influential local people who support the mine and shareholders who live in Johannesburg or overseas.

From Machibini we headed back to the school where community members, who could not be accommodated in the available vehicles, were waiting for us. This was where we were going to hold a debriefing session, which was of paramount importance, and where lunch was going to be served there.

DEBRIEFING SESSION:
I am of the view that this was the apex of the whole exchange visit as the tour triggered some strong emotions and brought to the fore the submissions we have been making to the Fuleni community and it also afforded the Somkhele community our assurance that we are always part of their struggle even if we are not there every day. Though we didn’t bring anything with us to help ease their burden, we did bring our solidarity which is led by our vision to one day free them from the unjust social, environmental and financial complications brought by the mine. This session afforded people the opportunity to express what it is that they observed and what are they afraid of, especially those from Fuleni. One interesting observation shared later by a Fuleni resident was that the Somkhele community had land in abundance which has been taken by the mine. His fear is that Fuleni doesn’t even have half the land Somkhele has, which means once the proposed mine is in their background and starts operations they won’t be lucky to be relocated to a place nearby the place of their birth because the mine would take up all the land. They are likely to be displaced to even further away and find themselves more isolated from town and other amenities than where they are right now.

 

Another observation was that for Fuleni, the area of Somkhele was always referred to in Zulu as “Elingafelwa nkonyana” which translates to the land where no calf would die young because of the abundance of food, water and the clean environment. Today, and since the mine started its operations, this is no longer the case

One Fuleni resident said after the tour that, if it was possible for him, he would ask God to take away all the people from his area that are advocating for the mine. He further went on to say he knew he didn’t want the mine in his area but after that particular day he despises everything about the proposed mine so much that he doesn’t even want to hear that word again.

One more comment he made was about the total disregard the mine showed in the way it handled the relocation of graves. He said “In our culture if you don’t respect the people who have been called to rest and become our ancestors, it means you don’t have a past, present and a future. Eventually you become a lost soul”.

The meeting was closed by Mr. Hlengwa , the only resident in the Myeki area, where the mine is about to open another shaft, who is resisting being moved and refusing to relocate. Everyone else has agreed to relocate. With Mr. Hlengwa’s resistance the whole process has been halted and the people of that community who have agreed to relocation are blaming him for subjecting them to poverty. Until he agrees they can’t be moved and paid what is due to them. This is a clear DIVIDE AND RULE STRATEGY implemented by the mine that thinks community members can exact some pressure on Mr. Hlengwa and do the job which the mine should be doing. According to Mr. Hlengwa, the mine was not there when he built his house therefore no one can dictate to him how much it is worth. He says he won’t entertain anyone else contacting him in this regard. If the mine bosses want to relocate him then they will hear from him as to how much his house is worth, not the other way around.

While we were busy with the debriefing, Sheila, Rob and the film crew visited a third grave site near Machibini, then returned to the village to film and interview residents talking about their grievances. Interviews were held with Maxwell Siyaya and Sipho Gumede, Chairperson and Deputy Chair of DAC, representing the Machibini community. We joined them at Machibini after the debriefing and soon after that Kirsten Youens arrived after her weekend in the iMfolozi Wilderness Area with Chris van Heerden. The Somkhele residents were very happy to meet our legal representative. Colwyn used the opportunity to interview Mr Gednezar Dladla from Somkhele and the two Fuleni representatives, Phila Ndimande from Ocilwane and spokesperson for Fuleni, and also Lembede from Nthuthunga 2.

 

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