Lessons from 14 years of sustained activism in Xolobeni

14 July 2021 | Story Tess Peacock and Zak Essa. Photo Homebrew Films Company/Gallo Images. Read time 6 min.
Red dunes in Xolobeni on the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. These dunes are rich in archaeological sites and highly sensitive to destruction by mining.
Red dunes in Xolobeni on the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. These dunes are rich in archaeological sites and highly sensitive to destruction by mining.

Zak Essa, a recent graduate in economics from the University of Cape Town (UCT) who works at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Bulungula Incubator, and Tess Peacock, director of the Equality Collective, look to the Xolobeni community to find out more about how remote, rural communities manage to mobilise and fight the state and powerful mining interests.

The Equality Collective is a relatively new organisation committed to rural advocacy on issues that will alleviate poverty and advance greater equity. We are based in the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area in deep rural Eastern Cape, which epitomises the most acute challenges facing South Africa. Communities have limited access to basic services and quality education and healthcare services. On top of poor service delivery, the local and regional governments are some of the most dysfunctional in the country.

We have recently begun water advocacy in our region, the Amathole District, where we are seeing a clear regression by the government in advancing access to the right to water. The Mncwasa Water Scheme was finalised around 2013 and hailed as a right-to-water success story. But today it is a story of leaky pipes and poor maintenance with half the scheme nonfunctional. This is fast becoming a ubiquitous narrative of municipalities in the Eastern Cape. It is clear that any success in this work will require sustained advocacy and activism from our communities until a new status quo is firmly established and maintained. 

In our journey to understand how to sustain a social movement in such a context, we looked to our distant neighbours in Xolobeni. The Xolobeni communities (consisting of five villages) are also based along the Wild Coast between the Mzamba and Mtentu rivers. With few resources, the communities of Xolobeni have been fighting mining companies, and the government’s support for the mining of their land, since 2007. 

Our goal was to learn how such remote, rural communities have managed to organise and fight the tremendous might and power of the state and a well-resourced mining company for more than 14 years.

Despite being just 150km away as the crow flies, the combination of poor road connections and a geography marked by steep hills and deep river gorges means this journey takes eight hours from where we are based – with three and a half hours of bad, dirt roads on either side. 

On our drive, we are reminded that activism in the face of impossible odds is not novel in the Eastern Cape. The province was once home to some of the most recognisable revolutionary activists in our country’s history. Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Nelson Mandela all faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in their quest for a better future. 

We eventually arrived late on a Tuesday evening. Despite this, Nonhle Mbuthuma meets us at our overnight accommodation before her flight to Cape Town the next day. Nonhle is the spokesperson for the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), an unregistered entity whose members organise and support the communities fighting mining in the region. 

As we sit down to share a meal, she begins sharing stories about resistance that the people of Xolobeni are engaged in. Resistance against mining that threatens the land they live on, resistance against the proposed N2 coastal highway which will split communities in half and resistance against a municipality that constantly makes decisions about their lives without them being present, despite providing next to no service delivery. 

Throughout the conversation, you are touched by Nonhle’s fierce passion for her community. You can also sense a tiredness in her eyes that speaks to the exhaustion of constantly having to fight for your rights without respite. At one point Nonhle remarks that she just wants to be with her community rather than rallying support across the country. 

After our inspiring dinner, we are reminded of the gravity of Nonhle’s role as an activist when she is escorted away by a full-time bodyguard. Nonhle’s life is constantly under threat and the risk is real, with the former Chairperson of the ACC having been assassinated. Fighting – within the bounds of the law – for your own land is sadly a dangerous business.

A landscape of beauty and resistance

After a quick night of travellers’ sleep, the next morning started bright and early. We met Siyabonga (Siya) Ndovela, a vibrant young activist who is also a member of the ACC. Siya cheerfully agreed to hike with us from the Mzamba river to the Mtentu river, 23km across the proposed mining region.

Siya was mobilised as an activist after participating in an interschool debate in grade 9. At the event, his team was given the task of arguing for mining in Xolobeni, a stance so egregious to him that he staged a walkout with his fellow students and protested outside the venue. Although disqualified, the seeds of activism and passion against mining were already deeply sown. 

Our hike started at the Wild Coast Sun, a multimillion-rand investment that is emblematic of the failed promises of “development” – fresh in the memories of the people of Xolobeni. As we cross a footbridge over the Mzamba river, we speak about the resort which started as a corrupt deal between Chief Matanzima (the “Prime Minister” of the Transkei at the time) and a businessman who got rights to develop 640ha of land for just R2,500 a month. Later, the rights were sold to Holiday Inn and subsequently to Sun International to develop a casino, which was not allowed in South Africa at the time. Hundreds of families were moved from their land and ancestral graves, with promises of compensation and jobs that never materialised. 

Between our gulps of water on the other side of the Mzamba footbridge, Siya points to where the proposed coastal N2 is supposed to be built – a mere 3kms from the coastline. He relates that the Xolobeni communities are convinced that it is so close to the coast to make life easier for the proposed mining companies. They know that the mining will be impossible without a good road and therefore fighting the location of the proposed highway is now part of the resistance. 

Once we begin walking again, our route takes us through Sigidi, one of the villages of Xolobeni. Siya is constantly waving and greeting the residents we pass. He tells us that an overwhelming majority of homesteads are against mining. Most in the region seem convinced that they are unlikely to get meaningful jobs from mining and that their way of life – of which they are incredibly proud – will be upended. The strongest resistance comes from those who will lose their farming and grazing land. 

He also explains that it is easy to spot those who are pro mining as their homes are generally adorned with large solar systems – a hint that they have likely accepted bribes from the mining company. 

As we traverse the endless beaches, marshy wetlands and green vistas we spot unique birdlife and indigenous fauna. We also pass jovial line fishermen and see fields upon fields of ibhatata (sweet potatoes) and amadumbe (yams). Clear pockets of excellence in subsistence living which is backed up by research that shows low levels of food insecurity in the Amadiba region. Some of these homesteads even manage to produce enough to sell their organic produce in a local market in Bizana. With each step across the pristine coastline, the beauty of Xolobeni seems more sacrosanct. 

After nearly six hours of trekking, Siya points to imposing red dunes in the distance. They seem out of place with the bright blue ocean and acres of grasslands. As we get closer, the dunes become more striking. 

Siya tells us that the bright red sand is rich in titanium and this is where the mining is intended to start. It was an Australian mining company, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources, that managed to get rights to mine the region in 2008. From the get-go the communities in Xolobeni were excluded from accessing crucial information they needed to make meaningful decisions and eventually were only provided a redacted version of the mining right. Yet another example of how the agency of rural communities is consistently undermined by the state. In this case, instead of managing the inequality of power between the mining company and the communities, the state served to exacerbate it. 

Despite being excluded from the negotiations, the communities were adamant on making sure that they would have the final say about what can be done on their land. It is explained to us that the communities make all their decisions at Komkhulu (the Great Place). 

To consider the mining opportunity, they undertook due diligence by visiting other areas affected by mining so that they could make an informed, considered decision. They saw homesteads adjacent to huge mining dunes, affected by loud noise that would continue through the night, and grazing land for their animals was obliterated without compensation. They saw how the dust from such an open-cast mine constantly pollutes the air and rain water. 

Collectively, the community decided that this was not for them. 

We reached our final destination at the Mtentu river late in the afternoon, exhausted but inspired by the Xolobeni people and their brave resistance. 

Fourteen years of resistance

In the 14 years of resistance, the communities and activists have been severely tested. At least 12 community members who have been against mining have been murdered and the threat of mining is still ever present. Despite this, the communities remain resolute in their fight. 

Sinegugu Zukulu, an environmentalist from one of the more inland villages, shares that the key to the success of Xolobeni against the unholy coalition of the state and a mining company is in developing a shared vision for the future of the region that they all support and buy into. That shared vision is to save and protect their land, a crucial part of their identity, for all future generations and for any development to be in symbiosis with that. According to Sinegugu, the secret to their success is not having activists but a culture of activism that extends beyond mere individuals. The cowards who have assassinated some of the activists should be quicker to learn this.

Aside from maintaining a unified vision of a better future for the region, the sharing of information is paramount to the success of the resistance. Another ACC leader, Cromwell Sonjica explains that transparency is critical to maintaining trust with fellow community members. Each village across the mining region has ACC representatives, and despite their deep rural location keep each other informed and mobilised. Hosting physical meetings is essential to keep the elders informed although they do also have community WhatsApp groups. They share information immediately and do not hide or obfuscate anything. 

They have also managed to network power in different ways and have engaged in a plethora of strategies over the years which include protests, strategic use of public-interest lawyers (supported by Richard Spoor Attorneys and the Legal Resources Centre) and the use of the media to gain public support. 

The marriage of a shared, unified vision and informed communities that are ready to mobilise have resulted in two important wins against the proposed mining. 

First, community members affected by mining can now access important information relating to the applications for mining rights. This will assist them with their participation in any consultation procedures. 

Even more significantly, the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the Mineral Resources Department cannot grant a mining licence without prior, informed consent by the affected communities. This win has subsequently been taken on appeal by Minister Gwede Mantashe to the Supreme Court of Appeal. Cromwell wonders if it will ever end; he wants to fight so that his children will not have to, but his biggest fear is that future generations will have to keep struggling to keep their land. 

Poverty stricken but not poor

Surrounded by a sea of underdevelopment, Xolobeni is often described as one of the poorest areas along the Wild Coast. In fact, Gwede Mantashe consistently maintains that the area is desperately poor and that mining will bring the jobs and development desperately needed. Despite this, Cromwell emphatically tells us, he doesn’t feel poor and he never goes hungry. “If I get a job at the mine, that job will make me poor,” he says. In other words, he will lose the rich wealth he has in his land and be forever dependent on menial, back-breaking jobs in the mines. A major lesson here is that top-down decision making simply does not work and that community members (not just their traditional leaders) must be integrally and meaningfully involved in the process.

It has been clear from our trip that the Wild Coast is an area of tremendous richness. There are strong, cohesive community ties as well as immense pride and a strong sense of history. The land is fertile and astoundingly beautiful; there is excellence in subsistence farming and powerful indigenous herbalist knowledge. It is clear that the people have a strong desire to work towards improving their own lives on their own terms. After a long drive back we arrived home, tired yet hopeful and inspired to continue our fight.

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick.

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