This post is available in Zulu – IYIPHI LENTANDOYENINGI ESIKHULUMA NGAYO?
By Sifiso Dladla
I often ask myself what democracy means. Sometimes I think government considers just holding elections are enough to wave this flag. But when it comes to ordinary people voicing opposition to matters they don’t agree with, then I watch and see how undemocratic we can be.
Take for example the women in the Ocilwane village who have been voicing their objections to the establishment of this proposed ‘Fuleni’ coal mine on the boundary of the Wilderness area of iMfolozi Park in Zululand.
On behalf of thousands of residents, these ladies were brave enough to say this mine would destroy their lifestyles and force them to have to move. They had seen what human, cultural and agricultural devastation from a nearby coal mine at Somkhele has done to that community.
They voiced a number of serious queries about how the KZN provincial government and the coal mining company, Ibutho Coal were going about matters. At the very least, they felt it was essential the chief for the whole tribe must come to visit their villages to listen to their worries.
The meeting was arranged in December last year. It never took place as the chief said he was not well. Another date was arranged but nothing happened. To this day, many months later, nothing has been heard from the chief.
In desperation, they then approached Induna Mthetwa. They pleaded with him to approach the Traditional Council to persuade the chief to meet them as planned.
And the Induna did so. But for his troubles, he was labelled “an embarrassment” for listening and being controlled by women! Induna Mthethwa was even fined (although this was later suspended).
Another community member was not so lucky! He was accused of being disrespectful to the Traditional Council because he had been speaking out against the coal mine. He was fined three goats, or the equivalent of R3 600.00.
Friends, what is this? Do you fine someone for suggesting that the provincial government has never fulfilled its legal responsibility to come and inform the community of what this mine will mean to them?
Do you fine people because they correctly point out that they, the community, have never been told about the complicated environmental process that applies to establishing a development like this mine?
Do you strike fear into good people because they express legitimate terror that their lives are going to be crushed by a coal mine running right through their village?
Is fear the bedrock of our democracy? That unless you do exactly what incompetent or dishonest people in seniority tell you, then you will be punished?
Of course, the women and this community member were absolutely right. Both the Traditional Authority and the KZN Dept. of Environmental Affairs and Tourism have failed to protect the rights of the community. They have failed to fulfil their responsibilities. Like the chief, they just ignore their duty.
May I ask you, what does the community do to get their legitimate voices heard? What does King Goodwill Zwelithini think of this? Remember, he recently intervened to protect the rights of communities by stating that communities frequently know nothing about their rights when it comes to mining ventures; that government issue mining licenses without any consultation with affected communities; that mining people enter our land without our permission.
Fortunately, there are a number of good outsiders who are prepared to tell the 16 000-strong Fuleni community some of the details that the Chief and the government are avoiding.
Tragically, one such person was Baba Gednezar Dladla who passed away last month. Readers, here we had one of the most honourable and bravest people you could hope to find. He stood up for the truth even when it meant standing alone. He was the heart and soul of the community’s opposition to coal mining.
Baba Dladla was highly respected. He was a man of the cloth, too. By combining this with his wisdom and courage, his frequent cries of how democracy was being perverted made a huge impression on the community.
His wife Mamtshali told me that even in his last hours he pleaded with her to carry on the fight for justice; to never stop exposing the lies, deceit and intimidation being practiced by Traditional Councils, government officials and the mining people.
Readers, for me Baba Dladla epitomised how democracy should work. He listened and engaged with people and when it was clear to him that things were not right, he made it very clear they were not right.
This gentle but principled man has left behind a legacy. Yes, he embodied what I believe democracy is all about.
Sifiso Dladla is a human and environmental rights advocate. He is the community co-ordinator and spokesperson for ICWA (iMfolozi Community Wildlife Alliance).