Nonhle Mbuthuma.

Nonhle Mbuthuma. Goldman Environmental Prize


How One South African Community Stopped Shell Oil in Its Tracks

Activist Nonhle Mbuthuma founded a local organization along South Africa’s Wild Coast to fight a proposed strip mine 17 years ago. Despite ongoing personal threats, she’s still working to protect her community from oil exploration and other potentially harmful development.

For nearly a decade, Nonhle Mbuthuma has traveled with a bodyguard. The founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee — a local group formed to fight a proposed titanium mine along South Africa’s Wild Coast — Mbuthuma has long had the support of many in rural Pondoland’s Xolobeni community. But opponents have demonized her as an arch enemy of all economic development, and some have been encouraged to believe that if Mbuthuma “disappeared,” they would get rich.

Eight years ago, Mbuthuma’s activist colleague Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who opposed the mine, was shot dead outside his home by two men dressed as police officers. (Neither assailant has been caught.) Mbuthuma was also a target that day. Amadiba succeeded in halting construction of the mine, and Mbuthuma, 46, has continued working to protect this highly biodiverse region and the traditional culture of the Mpondo people.

This week, Mbuthuma, and her colleague Sinegugu Zukulu, won a Goldman Environmental Prize for their recent efforts to prevent Shell Oil from prospecting along the Wild Coast. As the activist headed to San Francisco to pick up her award, she spoke via Zoom with Yale Environment 360 about Pondoland, plans for its future development, and continuing threats to her life.

“Shell is a big company with a lot of money, but we said that they are not bigger than our livelihoods and culture.”

Yale Environment 360: Tell me about your struggle with Shell Oil.

Nonhle Mbuthuma: When we heard in late 2021 that Shell wanted to do seismic blasting off the coast, it was like someone put a bomb to our chest. These waters are precious, with rich ocean currents and reefs feeding whale calving grounds and fisheries. That water is part of us. We have cooperatives that do environmental fishing, using rods rather than nets that wipe out everything. But the ocean is also a sacred place. According to our traditions, our ancestors reside in the ocean. We have a right under our country’s constitution to practice our culture, and that requires protecting our waters. So we decided to fight in the courts.

The government had already given Shell permission to start seismic blasting. Shell is a big company with a lot of money, but we said that they are not bigger than our livelihoods and culture. We mobilized our communities to collect information to explain why the ocean is so important to us. We were backed by protests all over the country.

Even as the surveying began, the high court ruled in our favor. The judges said the permit to do the surveys had been granted unlawfully because the government had not considered the impact on our livelihoods and culture and because Shell did not consult the community, which is a requirement of our constitution. But Shell and the government have decided to appeal the judgment.

South Africa's Wild Coast.

South Africa's Wild Coast. Reinhard Dirscherl / Alamy Stock Photo

e360: The coastal waters off Pondoland are a marine protected area. Does Shell want to do seismic surveys inside that area?

Mbuthuma: Yes, they do. It is an important refuge for fish that are overharvested elsewhere. It was a shock to us that this fact was not deemed important by the regulators. It was clear that short-term economic priorities came first for the government. But we cannot compromise our long-term economy for short-term benefits like this.

e360: Seven years ago, the big threat to Pondoland and the Wild Coast was an Australian company, Mineral Resource Commodities, which wanted to mine for ilmenite, the ore that contains titanium, in the sand dunes and grassy hillsides along the shore, close to your villages. What is happening with the mine?

Mbuthuma: The Australians haven’t gone away. They are biding their time, I think. In 2018, we won a legal judgment to prevent the mine’s construction. The Department of Minerals and Energy said it was going to appeal, claiming the judgment meant there could be no mining anywhere in South Africa. But that is not true: The judgment stated very clearly that people must be consulted and give their full, free, prior, and informed consent. It doesn’t say no mining, but it says there must be consent.

“There are a lot of threats: verbal threats, text message threats… I am still targeted and demonized the way Bazooka was.”

e360: Is there a date for the government’s appeal?

Mbuthuma: No. The department just [issued] a notice of appeal. It cannot be left hanging in the air forever. To start titanium mining along the coast, the company will need a proper road to transport the minerals. Right now, there is no coastal road. The existing highway goes far inland. But the government badly wants to build a coastal highway. It will go right through our villages.

e360: So far, you have managed to prevent that too, right?

Mbuthuma: Yes. We don’t oppose any road. But we are trying to negotiate with SANRAL [the government road-building agency] for an alternative route that will save our villages and be less damaging for biodiversity.

SANRAL says it would take too long to change their preferred route, with environmental authorization taking five years. But the alternative route was surveyed before, as an option they then rejected. It need only take 90 days to get approval because the community will support it.

Community leader Sikhosiphi "Bazooka" Rhadebe, who was murdered in 2016.

Community leader Sikhosiphi "Bazooka" Rhadebe, who was murdered in 2016. Courtesy of the Legal Resource Center

e360: Why won’t they go with that?

Mbuthuma: Clearly, the route is about serving the mining interests and other big projects being planned for our coastal areas. SANRAL finds it difficult to argue against us, so instead they just block discussion. And sometimes worse.

e360: You have been campaigning a long time. Do you still have a bodyguard?

Mbuthuma: Yes, I have to. There are a lot of threats: verbal threats, text message threats. Last year, a whistleblower told us about a plan to assassinate me. And I am still targeted and demonized the way Bazooka was. For instance, March 21 is Human Rights Day in South Africa. We usually organize a rally here in Pondoland to celebrate our culture and rights. But this year some people tried to stop it. They rolled boulders onto the road to block people arriving. Men armed with bush knives guarded the boulders. It was clearly organized. Someone had supplied a lot of alcohol.

The message was that I was to blame for everything, and if Nonhle can “disappear,” then everything can be good in the community. Of course, when someone is “disappeared” it means they are dead.

“This is a hotspot for nature. But [government officials] see hotels as more important than fields and nature.”

e360: This is very personal.

Mbuthuma: Yes. It is a very common tactic. In order to defeat the community, you single out one person and say they are the problem.

e360: Does the government see you as an enemy of development?

Mbuthuma: Yes, it does. But I am a friend of development — of the right sort. Development is about people. Without people, it is not development. So our opinion is important. Our people must decide their own future. If we are not involved, then that is not development.

e360: The Amadiba Crisis Committee has strong support within your community. But what about external support?

Mbuthuma: Other civil society groups in South Africa give us support. And internationally from environmental organizations and human rights groups, like Amnesty [International]. When you are supported from abroad you feel that you are not alone.

We have to stop the highway because it would allow the mining and will attract what I call the hungry lions: people who come to the Wild Coast to enrich themselves, rather than putting the environment first.

Nokwamkela Mteki asks a question at the meeting in Xolobeni.

A 2017 community meeting in Xolobeni village to discuss the proposed titanium mine. Kirsanne Johnson / Yale Environment 360

Our land is being grabbed by people who want to build houses and hotels. We had a meeting with the Eastern Cape’s department of public works, which has big plans to “tame the Wild Coast.” We tell [the government] about the potatoes we grow, and the goats we farm, and the trees whose fruits we harvest. We tell them about our cultural traditions and about the biodiversity. This is a hotspot for nature. But they see hotels as more important than fields and nature. They say they want to build on the coast, and in the sea they want big tourist boats and not fish.

e360: So what development do you want? Can you have tourism that doesn’t damage the coast?

Mbuthuma: Yes, we can find a way. We have a community-built lodge, the Mtentu Lodge, that won an ecotourism award. It attracts people from around the world. It creates jobs, and its profits are apportioned democratically to the community. Unfortunately, the lodge burned down last December, but it is being rebuilt by the community.

“The future, I hope, will see more protection. Not with people being pushed out, but through community protection.”

e360: In 20 or 30 years, how will the Wild Coast change, and what do you hope for?

Mbuthuma: The future, I hope, will see more protection. Not with people being pushed out, but through community protection. We want to see ecotourism supported, with more eco-friendly lodges in the villages, so visitors can live with our people and learn about their culture.

We dream of seeing the Wild Coast as an agricultural hub, where we process crops that we produce, rather than just taking them to market. We want the fishing cooperatives to be supported so they can process the fish too.

e360: The government is in the process of legalizing the growing and possession of cannabis. This has been an important crop in Pondoland for some time. So is this an economic opportunity?

Mbuthuma: Cannabis, which we call dagga, is part of our agriculture. We grew a lot even before it was legalized. For us it is a medicine. People here have been arrested for many years trying to protect our dagga fields. Now, growing and processing it could be part of our future. But you need a license to cultivate it commercially. Getting a license is expensive and complicated, and right now only rich outsiders can benefit from this industry.

So the risk is that the rich will once again come and try to make a profit from the resources of the Wild Coast. Our resources.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.