13 July 2024 | 11:47 PM

Amid death threats, villagers take on their chief and an Indian company in a fight for their land

Key Takeaways

Activists from KwaZulu-Natal say they have received death threats after challenging traditional authorities over prospecting rights granted to the Indian mining giant, Jindal.

The residents of Makhasaneni, near Melmoth, say tribal leaders gave permission to prospect on communal land without informing them.

Mbhekiseni Mavuso, who is heading a protest that aims to halt the prospecting, told amaBhungane that he and other leaders have received death threats and that he had been warned to leave the area.

Mavuso has been in hiding since last month.

KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor Mary de Haas has written a letter to the Melmoth station commander, calling on police to investigate the threats.

The Melmoth police called a meeting this week to probe the claims.

Central to the saga is the controversial Ingonyama Trust, which holds 2.8-million hectares of traditional land in KwaZulu-Natal with King Goodwill Zwelithini as trustee.

The trust stands accused of giving permission to Jindal and its empowerment partner, Sungu Sungu, to prospect – without consulting the villagers.

The Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act states that no one can be deprived of their rights to land without their consent, said Michael Clark, a legal researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Law and Society.

Similarly, the Ingonyama Trust provides that the trust may not infringe people’s existing land rights.

Clark said it was illegal if the Makhasaneni residents had not been consulted.

The trust was created in 1994 to manage land held by the KwaZulu homeland during apartheid.

Mavuso said the consortium started drilling in 2011. Villagers were angered by the lack of consultation, worried that prospecting could destroy their farmland and that they would not benefit from the mining.

“The mining company and the tribal authority stand to earn millions, while the community stands to lose everything,” Mavuso said.

“The people on the phone tell me that I have been identified as stubborn and a troublemaker and that I should be taken care of.”

At first Mavuso ignored the calls, but these became more frequent after articles attacking him appeared Bayede News, a weekly newspaper.

One article in July last year quoted people accusing Mavuso of being a “traitor” and said that he was in cahoots with white farmers.

The article was in reaction to a workshop intended to inform people about their land rights, Mavuso said. He had given a presentation at the workshop that was hosted by various nongovernmental organisations.

Bayede News described the workshop as part of a growing campaign “to stop Ingonyama Trust from taking back the land that belongs to Zulu people from the white farmers … taken by force during colonial times”.

Bayede News journalist Mandla Zulu, a member of the traditional council, who wrote the article, said it reflected what was said at the workshop.

“I gave him a chance to respond and he denied the allegations levelled against him by community members. At this meeting, Mavuso made representations about how the community was being abused by the royal family. ”

Mavuso said Makhasaneni was a community deeply imbued with Zulu culture, where the chief and the royal family were respected and obeyed.

Mavuso and other activists, who asked not to be named, alleged Jindal had used tactics to soften up the tribal council, including giving jobs to royal family members.

Asked to comment, the company said all the posts had been advertised and a fair selection process had been followed.

AmaBhungane has independently confirmed that the consortium purchased a car for the local chief, Thandazani Zulu.

AmaBhungane has also learned that, after signing the access agreement with Chief Zulu, Sungu Sungu took the document to Ingonyama Trust for a final go-ahead.

The activists described how the villagers woke up in late December 2011 to find “heavy machines drilling holes in our backyards and grazing fields, and trucks driving up and down”.

In early 2012 the villagers called for a meeting with Chief Zulu, local government officials and the mining company to get clarity.

Residents formed a circle in an open field, placed the chief in the middle and demanded that he explain the situation to them, according to one villager and a company source.

“The community was angry and felt betrayed. No one knew anything about the plan for mining and the drilling machines were destroying people’s crops and family graves,” said Mavuso.

He added that Jindal and Sungu Sungu had failed to knock on a single door in the village.

“We might be uneducated and poor but we didn’t deserve such treatment,” he said.

Chief Zulu confirmed that he had signed an agreement granting access to the joint venture, but denied not consulting the residents.

He insisted that the villagers were happy and problems only arose when two families complained about family graveyards being disturbed.

“If Sungu Sungu can come and talk to people, they will be happy and work will resume,” he said. He denied that any meeting had taken place where the villagers had demanded answers.

He also denied complaining to the Entembeni Tribal Council that villagers had threatened him, and that they had been forced to apologise to him at a meeting later in 2012.

He rejected allegations the council had forced them to pay him two sheep and two bottles of brandy in compensation. According to Mavuso, each villager had been required to contribute R50.

At the same meeting, Sungu Sungu and Jindal gave a presentation about iron ore prospecting and the proposed mine.

“The chief hijacked the meeting. We didn’t want to offend him again so we agreed that the prospecting can go ahead. He then told us that he has forgiven us,” said Mavuso.

Villagers formed the 30-member Makhasaneni Community Association after this meeting.

“Our main mandate was to monitor the mining. We sat together and drafted a memorandum of understanding,” he said.

The memorandum demands that Jindal provides maps showing which areas will be affected, as well as copies of prospecting licences.

It calls for locals to be given preference in any employment, for the company to ask households for permission before drilling, for a fixed payment for every hole drilled, and for a rehabilitation plan for the environment.

Prospecting was suspended in February 2013 after Makhasaneni residents and the company failed to agree on a memorandum of understanding.

Jindal’s social head, Nozipho Dlomo, said the company could not sign the memorandum because “it did not meet requirements of all parties involved and was not signed by the necessary authority structures”.

“Under normal circumstances, if any memorandum of understanding were to be signed it would have been between the traditional council and prospecting company.”

Mavuso rejected Dlomo’s explanation: “This is our forefathers’ land and our heritage. It is very odd that the people who live on and work the land have no say on an issue that affects us. Because we have no title deeds it seems we have no rights.”

Ingonyama Trust spokesperson Simphiwe Mxakaza did not reply to questions sent two weeks ago.

Dlomo said in a statement that Jindal had fulfilled all obligations to the Makhasaneni community required by the mineral resources department. “Yes, we consulted them.”

She confirmed the prospecting permit, granted on August 26 2011, is due to expire on August 25 next year.

A source sympathetic to Jindal said the consortium had continued to prospect in other areas but was desperate to resume operations in iron-rich Makhasaneni.

The company had already spent close to R200-million on the project and was now preparing to apply for a mining licence.

“Makhasaneni is a small part of the process, but it is crucial,” said the Jindal source. “It is going to open a can of worms if other communities start to ask questions and demand to be included in the process.”

CORRECTION: Bayede News is solely owned by KwaZulu Natal businessman Nhlanhla Mtaka not by the Ingonyama Trust as it was reported earlier. We apologise for the error.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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