Xolobeni — The mine, the murder and the DG (amaBhungane) by Sam Sole, 30 June 2019
Some stories intersect at many levels.
Such is the saga of Xolobeni, the unique coastal region across the Eastern Cape border from the town of Port Edward, southern KwaZulu-Natal.
It is a story about the struggle between mining and conservation, between local autonomy and the determination of distant politicians and bureaucrats that they know better – that stripping the dunes at Xolobeni for heavy minerals will mean “development”, which justifies ignoring local pleas for a gentler path based on agriculture and tourism.
It is about the corrosive effects a potentially valuable resource can bring to a small and fragile community and ecosystem.
It is about the impact an organised community, committed local leadership and activists from further afield can make against the relentless pressure of a state allied with capital – for more than a decade they have resisted bids to grant a mining license at Xolobeni.
It is about the costs and casualties of that struggle – and the intersection of the lives of two men, one now dead, one very much alive: Xolobeni activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe and minerals department veteran Adv Sandile Nogxina.
The big man and the small man
The collision between Bazooka and Nogxina – between competing values and masculinities, between rural guile and urban sophistication – is emblematic of this story.
It also shows how buried history can return with resurrected potency.
Bazooka was a big man in a rural pond, but he had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and enjoyed respect and support in the local community.
Born in 1964, he had gone to work on a mine in Johannesburg – like many young Mpondo men before and since.
Qunya and his brother Zamokwakhe “Basheen” Qunya had been influential in Accoda (the trust set up to pursue community-based eco-tourism and agriculture) but following their recruitment to the mining cause and its blandishments, they and their allies in the local authority were accused of deliberately undermining tourism alternatives.
In 2013, the Qunyas were ousted from Accoda at a stormy AGM in which a gun was pulled on Nonhle Mbuthuma, the current spokesperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee.
Boqwana’s presence as a founder of Xolco is suggestive of the mining project’s political pull: he is an influential Eastern Cape lawyer, later emerging as the chief executive of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.
At one point, Boqwana reportedly claimed that he was acting not for his own account, but under instruction from DME.
At Tormin, the West Coast mine, the original empowerment arrangement was with Bateman Africa, an engineering firm in which ANC investment company Chancellor House held an interest.
That gave way in 2005 to a proposal from the politically-connected Ehlobo Heavy Minerals, set up by two former DTI heavyweights. However, Ehlobo pulled out in February 2007, reportedly scared off by the negative publicity that the mining project was generating.
That left the Xolco as the senior empowerment partner to MRC, via two 100%-owned daughter companies, Blue Bantry Investments 225, which owns 50% of the Tormin mine and Keysha Investments 178, which owns 26% of Transworld and the Xolobeni prospect.
Xolco claims to be made up of five trusts set up for the benefit of the community, but a parliamentary reply as recent as December 2018 – some 15 years after Xolco was set up – stated: “The proposed BEE beneficiaries are community trusts, however, the supporting documents have not yet been submitted.”
Meanwhile, the sole director of Keysha is Prince Mzwandile Maraqana, the spokesperson for amaMpondo king Zanozuko Sigcau.
Sigcau (whose kingship is contested) is an outspoken supporter of mining, raising suspicions that Keysha is a proxy for the interests of this branch of the royal family.
As an influential community figure, Bazooka was lobbied to support mining.
“I was once [selected] as a member of Xolco in 2006,” he told journalist Ingi Salgado in a 2011 interview.
“When we asked questions about the role of the company, we were told it was specifically for the Xolobeni mine and we’d be given money and it would flow to the community… We were taken to Richards Bay to view mining operations there. That’s when I told them if that’s what it looks like then it’s not going to work here.
“I expected an underground mine like Johannesburg, I did not think of something open to take the land out. I asked where our cattle are going to graze and people stay. We were told not to be concerned about that because we should all be concerned about the money.”
Around this time, those worried about mining also began to garner important allies.
John Clarke is a Johannesburg-based social worker and human rights activist.
In 2001, he began his relationship with the Amadiba community after enjoying a family holiday with Amadiba Adventures, the community-owned horse and hiking trails set up by Accoda with assistance from the European Union.
Nonhle Mbuthuma, who would become the face of the crisis committee after Bazooka’s murder, was one of the original guides trained under the auspices of the EU-funded project.
On 22 March 2016, Bazooka was assassinated.
Two men posing as policemen came to his workshop and insisted he accompany them. When he resisted they shot him multiple times and fled in a hijacked car.
If his murder was at the behest of someone in the pro-mining lobby, as the crisis committee alleges, then it was counter-productive.
Activists and the media converged on Xolobeni again. Four months later MRC announced it would divest its majority interest in the dune-mining venture because of “ongoing violence and threats to the peace and harmony of the Xolobeni community”.
MRC said it planned to sell its 56% to Transworld’s 26% empowerment shareholder, Keysha Investments, where King Zanozuko’s spokesperson was the only director, “subject to satisfactory commercial negotiations and agreement with its other shareholder”.
That deal was never consummated due, the company says, to uncertainty created by an 18-month moratorium imposed by then mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane in September 2016.
Zwane cited “the significant social disintegration and highly volatile nature of the current situation in the area” as the reason for suspending the licensing process once again.
In December 2017 the Jacob Zuma slate was narrowly defeated at the ANC’s elective congress and following Zuma’s resignation in February 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Gwede Mantashe as the new mining minister.
On 3 August 2018, Mantashe announced his intention to extend Zwane’s mining moratorium by a further 24 months or “or until the Minister is satisfied that the community conflict and unrest has been resolved and that the application can continue”.
But in an investor presentation released on 24 August 2018, MRC suggested things were looking up for Xolobeni, noting in one bullet point: “New South African Government Leadership is pro development of Project.”
Then, on 29 August 2018, Mantashe addressed the 16th Africa Down Under mining conference in Perth, Western Australia, where he also met with MRC.
In September it was announced the minister would be attending a community meeting at Xolobeni on September 23.
It was another jamboree – and had clearly been organised some time in advance.
Mantashe later disclosed that the department had sourced catering for 5 000 people and transport had been laid on by the Mbizana local municipality.
Johan Lorenzen, a lawyer from Richard Spoor Attorneys, speaking ahead of the meeting, said there was perception among his clients that “this is a staged event, that people will be bused in to support mining”.
Indeed, another confrontation ensued when anti-mining protesters were blocked by police from entering the marquee where Mantashe was due to speak.
Spoor himself was arrested shortly after being filmed telling Mantashe, “I am trying to help you. If you work with us we can work together to solve problems.”
In the clip, Mantashe responded: “Okay. But you are disrupting my meeting.” To which Spoor replied, “I’m trying to fix your meeting.”
Charges of “incitement” were subsequently withdrawn against Spoor.
The meeting revealed Mantashe’s stance.
His department maintained that “a small group of people were instigated to disrupt and suppress discussions‚ but the meeting proceeded as planned” – and noted that only one organisation (the ACC) out of ten was against mining development in the area.
The meeting also revealed the return of Sandile Nogxina, who was present on that day.
He had been appointed as a special adviser to Mantashe in February 2018, but until 23 September the crisis committee had not been aware of this.
Now he was back – and back at Xolobeni, despite his history with Bazooka, which, from the point of view of the crisis committee, made him highly controversial and conflicted.
That history became relevant once more – and in January 2019 the crisis committee approached amaBhungane to consider taking up where Salgado had left off.
Three issues made that request compelling.
Firstly, the fact that Bazooka’s murder was still unsolved and, moreover, that there were indications of a cover-up (of which more in a second article, perhaps).
Secondly, in November 2018 the community’s lawyers, led by advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, achieved a remarkable triumph in persuading the North Gauteng High Court that customary law and the Interim Protection of Informal Right to Land Act trumped mining legislation read the full judgement here.
In short, the court ruled that the Xolobeni community had the right to say no to mining on their land – a conclusion that Mantashe dramatically warned would be a death knell for the industry.
Thirdly, when Mantashe went back to Xolobeni for a second time on 16 January – a sortie that began with a pop-up youth group claiming to support mining and ended with police stun grenades and chaos – the question arose as to why Mantashe was investing enormous political capital on a project that was certifiably politically toxic, while being economically marginal.
On 22 May we sent a list of 44 questions to Nogxina, and nine (see here) were directed to the minister.
An interview with Nogxina took place on 29 May and lasted more than 95 minutes, during which he was unfailingly courteous.
He wanted to highlight two things.
One, that licence applications were submitted at regional level and had to pass multiple gateways and committees up the chain to receive his formal signature on the recommendation.
“I don’t sit in a corner there and then decide that, okay, I will grant this license… There are lots of checks and balances, you know; it wouldn’t be possible for me even if I wanted… to favour Xolobeni; it wouldn’t be possible.”
And two, that there was really no serious conflict – or that it was ameliorated in various ways.
“I mean to be honest with you I don’t see where the conflict is. Of course, I’ve got properties in Port Edward… there’s quite a number of my relatives who live in Port Edward but… remember that Port Edward… is a tourist town and no value can be created by mining in a tourist town…
“I don’t think that development or value would jump [from] Xolobeni… and accrue to Port Edward…
“Let’s look at the kind of businesses I’m involved in there. It’s farming. And I’m farming macadamia nuts. How would macadamia nuts benefit out of mining you can’t even supply macadamia products to a mine…”
Nogxina also was keen to emphasize that his role was as an advisor, that Mantashe was the decision-maker – and that he had taken steps to warn Mantashe about the perception of conflict and to minimise his own [Nogxina’s] role regarding Xolobeni.
“As a special advisor to the minister, whenever the minister needs your input, he calls you go and advise on that particular issue. So it was in that capacity that I had to go to Xolobeni … three times…
“Now [what you call my] active participation in the promotion of mining in Xolobeni is only confined to my responsibility as an advisor… I give advice, and the minister decides whether to take that advice or not…
“If you can look at my participation in Xolobeni as against the participation of the other advisor, Mr. Sello Helepi, you’ll find that my participation is minimal…
“At the first meeting I was just sitting there observing… There was no active participation from my part precisely because of what you are saying [about the perception of conflict].
“I’ve raised this several times with the minister that because of the fact that there is somebody there called John Clarke, who has a particular perception of me, I wouldn’t like to be seen as actively participating in the Xolobeni issue. And indeed, I’m not…”
Nogxina was quite clear that he had raised with Mantashe the issue of his perceived conflict. The problem with this is that, in our subsequent interview, Mantashe conceded no such understanding, as we shall see – though this may reflect more on Mantashe’s bullheaded attitude than on Nogxina’s candour.
Turning to the actual Bazooka allegations, Nogxina was constrained to shift his position.
Now, in addition to the Estuary hotel meeting, he confirmed meeting or bumping into Bazooka quite a few times, mainly at the car wash. And when they spoke, “definitely the issue of the mining would come up in our discussions”.
Nogxina even conceded that he could have encouraged Bazooka to use his influence in favour of mining.
He told us:
“I’m not going to deny or be apologetic about the fact that… my responsibility was to promote mining…
“But I feel that there is an exaggeration… in the characterization of the meetings that we had… you know, it cannot be that, in the process, I used the kind of language that is alleged…
“Bazooka mixes his facts and fiction; he exaggerates the facts. Because in all the meetings… I was not promoting a particular company, I was promoting mining, because I believe that mining would be an activity that would allow the development of that area.”
Would he have conveyed to Bazooka in any way that he should use his influence to bring that about?
“Definitely, I could have… Because remember, he was the chairperson… of the crisis committee. And therefore … if I was promoting mining it would be logical that I would have to speak to him…
“But I wouldn’t characterize benefits in that way of wealth and all that. But I would characterize benefits in the form of benefits that accrue to the community.
“We should remember Mpondos, you know, were the backbone of the South African mining industry. And my argument was that they were sending their sons to go and mine in Johannesburg. Why is it now that when the mining is going to be in their backyard are they refusing?”
When it came to Bazooka’s allegation that he was offered money, Nogxina again said this was “exaggeration”.
Nogxina claimed this was a characteristic: “Bazooka, by the way, people know that Bazooka exaggerates; go to the taxi rank there and ask them they will tell you that this is his nature.”
That conclusion does not emerge easily from a viewing of Salgado’s interview with Bazooka, where he appears to take some care to distinguish what he knows and what he doesn’t, but readers will have to make up their own minds.
Nogxina claimed also that Bazooka gave different versions to different audiences: “Remember, Bazooka was playing both sides here. Okay? He wanted to convince the crisis committee people that he was with them. And at times he would come to these other [pro-mining] people and negotiate with them to be involved…”
Nogxina’s version of what meetings took place, and where, is vague – but he is succinct about what happened after he received Salgado’s questions.
“I called Bazooka: Did you say these things? And Bazooka said: ‘No Bhuti. No, no, no, I cannot as I have a lot of respect for you. I can’t say those things. I can’t say that. No, no, this is not true. And by the way, I was speaking in Xhosa. And there was somebody was translating for me. And I think that’s where the problem was, I didn’t say those things’…”
“And I said to Bazooka: Okay, if you say so, go to the police station… The police will give you an affidavit form; fill in that form and bring it back to me. So he did that, brought that back to me.”
Nogxina says he knows nothing about the group of “14 men” allegedly intimidating Bazooka at the police station and claims Bazooka came to see him accompanied only by Bongani Nogxina.
Mantashe has just been reappointed mining minister when we speak, with the added portfolio of energy, making him one of the most powerful ministers in Ramaphosa’s new cabinet.
Mantashe has a combative style. He starts off by demanding: “But what is this story actually about?”
When I begin by putting it to him that Nogxina had told us he had expressed his concern to Mantashe not to be involved with Xolobeni because of perceptions that he might have a conflict of interest, Mantashe will have none of it.
Interview with Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy.
“What is the conflict?” he asks. “He [Nogxina] didn’t say anything. I come here 14 months 15 months now… One of the issues I find on the table is Xolobeni then I dig into it. It is there for 16 years. Then my question is what kind of a department is this, that allows an item to be on the table for 16 years.
“We must take a decision. If we take a decision not to mine let’s take that decision; if we take a decision to mine, let’s take that decision and everything will follow that.”
Later he states: “My advisor advises me he, doesn’t DEAL with Xolobeni, I deal with Xolobeni.”
It appears Mantashe’s dismissal of any knowledge of Nogxina’s concerns is more about not conceding even the remote possibility of a conflict, rather than throwing his advisor under the bus.
“My job is to promote mining; that can’t be a conflict,” he insists.
But how far does that job go? Does it go as far as supporting puppets that have their strings pulled by the mining lobby?
At Mantashe’s second sortie at Xolobeni on 16 January, the meeting collapsed when the chair (Mantashe’s other adviser, Helepi) brought forward a young man from the back of a queue of speakers. He was introduced as Simlindile Matsheleza, purporting to speak as a member of the crisis committee in support of mining.
The man, whose real name appears to be Anita Dineka, set off the uproar when he told the gathering that the Xolobeni community supports mining but is “fooled by whites”.
Later the crisis committee alleged Dineka was linked to Zamile Qunya and was being sheltered at Basheen’s home in Port Edward.
Neither Qunya nor MRC responded to a question about this.
Then there was the list of local organisations that Mantashe trumpeted were in support of mining, which included two trusts that were not yet registered.
Confronted with these claims, Mantashe concedes nothing: ”When I came [to the ministry], the first thing that happens is that there are NGOs, Johannesburg-based, well resourced, funded, that wanted to speak for rural mining areas. And I said it can’t be correct. Let’s talk to everybody including the rural based organisation that may not be formally registered and all that [because] they are in a village… They have a right to be heard…
“Where they get their money is not my business. Others will be funded by international entities that have no natural South African interest.”
While Mantashe insists he does “not know” Dineka, that didn’t stop him from claiming on television that his appearance demonstrated there were “cracks in the anti-mining group”.
When I put it to Mantashe that his job is to support mining, but not at all costs, he retorts: “But at the same time, your clients from Xolobeni must desist from a behaviour whose strategy is based on blocking us from talking to people there… we have been to Xolobeni twice, talked to communities, well attended meetings, by the way. And they came and tried to disrupt both meetings.
“In my vocabulary, we should not tolerate that, period. Because if we do that, we’re going to suppress views of many people, because there is a vocal group.
“My view of the Amadiba Crisis Committee is that they must allow us to continue exercising the right of this department to talk to communities… You can’t get a consent by correspondence, you can only get that consent by going there. Okay. And they must stop their temptation to think that we’ll not go there. Because we’ll go there.”
Turning to the Pretoria High Court judgement, Mantashe says they are appealing the aspect requiring the communal land owners must give “full and informed consent” before any mining right may be granted.
“Because we see that as transferring the right to issue licenses from the state to communities… you want then every last person to say yes, that is what ‘full’ should mean. It means if 10% of the people that say no, we should not go ahead.”
But, I suggest, the history of resistance at Xolobeni suggests that there is an overwhelming rejection of mining.
Mantashe counters: “But that shall be proven. That’s all we say. And if its proven that is only 10% that support mining, we should not go ahead with mining, simple.”
But who gets to decide? Who exactly gets polled?
That is the crucial question that Mantashe elides. When I suggest it should be only those families directly affected, he disagrees, arguing that mining “does not only affect the immediate communities”.
And there’s the rub and the basis for Mantashe’s strategy: the further you go from the beaches and the estuaries, the more the costs of mining recede to be someone else’s problem, and the louder ring the siren promises of benefit.
When I ask him about the appropriate balance between mining as a development tool and the damage to environment and community, he has a glib answer:
“I come across that all the time – I’m a mine-worker myself. You know how I normally describe mining? I say it is difficult. It is dangerous. It is dirty. It is diseased. Okay, that’s mining.
“Now, if you can take extreme positions on that matter we will not have what is called sustainable development.
“Which means if you are mining, conditions must be imposed that limit what you can do and what you cannot do. That’s why we are mining we give the mining license. Water gives the water license and environment gives the environmental license; because all the time we must balance the three.”
But Mantashe knows the three are not balanced, not at Xolobeni anyway, and he knows where he throws his considerable weight.
After the formal interview ends and the tape is off he drops his guard a little.
He asks if I have heard Ramaphosa lamenting that the democratic government has not built new towns, new cities – and he answers his own query: “If [mining] development is done right, there could be a whole new town.”
“At Xolobeni?” I ask, somewhat incredulous at his casual intransigence.
“At Xolobeni,” he confirms.
In her judgement on the right of traditional communities to say no, judge Annali Basson noted: “The community [is] strongly opposed to the proposed mining activities … on the basis that it will not only bring about a physical displacement from their homes, but will lead to an economic displacement of the community and bring about a complete destruction of their cultural way of life…Their fears are not without merit.”
She noted that the proposals had already created enormous divisions within the community.
“I have already mentioned the volatile situation that exists in this community as a result of the granting of mining rights…
“When directors of XolCo and their associates tried to gain access to the proposed mining site in 2015, violence erupted…
“Violence again erupted in December 2015 when a group of mining opponents were assaulted by a group of mining supporters.
“On 3 February 2016 the community received a redacted copy of the mining right application from [Tranworld’s] attorneys…
“The community thereafter got word that drilling would commence on 22 February and that if access was not allowed, force would be used…
“In March 2016 word got out that there was a hit list of mining opponents. That same evening a certain Mr Radebe was shot and killed by two unknown assassins which gave rise to speculation amongst the community about the motives for the killing.”
Despite this background, Mantashe wants to build a shining city on a rural Mpondo hill.
Perhaps he too believes that, for development, it may be necessary to spill blood.
Bazooka was not the first victim – it seems likely he will not be the last.