Nonhle Mbuthuma, leader of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which opposes a proposed titanium mine on South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, leader of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which opposes a proposed titanium mine on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Krisanne Johnson for Yale e360

A Death in Pondoland

How a Proposed Strip Mine Brought Conflict to South Africa’s Wild Coast

The murder of activist Sikhosiphi Rhadebe has not stopped communities in South Africa’s Pondoland region from opposing plans for a major titanium mine. What’s at stake are ecologically important lands – and, for the villagers, a way of life. Third in a series.

An E360 Series: Environmentalists at Risk

They called him “Bazooka” after his favorite soccer star. But Sikhosiphi Rhadebe’s real love was the magnificent coastal lands of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where he chaired a community organization campaigning to prevent an Australian mining company from strip-mining their sand dunes for titanium, one of the world’s most commercially valuable metals.

One evening last March, a Volkswagen Polo pulled up at his home, and two men posing as police dragged Bazooka outside. When he resisted, they shot him eight times in front of his 17-year-old son, then sped away. “Bazooka” was dead. Nearly a year later, there had been no arrests, and no apparent progress in the investigation into his murder. I had come to find out why. 

Sometimes, the boundaries between different worlds are breathtakingly stark. Leaving the airport at Durban on the east coast of South Africa, I drove south for three hours down the coastal highway past surfing beach resorts, condominiums, and retirement villages to a giant casino complex beyond Port Edward, the last tourist town. 

Here, the coastal highway abruptly ends. A narrow footbridge crosses the River Mzamba to a very different landscape, where manicured lawns are replaced by rolling pastureland; four-lane highways become tracks impassable when wet; cars give way to cattle; and neat condominiums are replaced by ramshackle villages with metal-roofed shacks.

A footbridge over the River Mzamba links the remote villages of Pondoland, South Africa’s least economically developed region, with the town of Port Edward.

A footbridge over the River Mzamba links Pondoland with the town of Port Edward. Krisanne Johnson for Yale e360

The footbridge — funded by an Austrian non-profit group upset at reports of children drowning as they tried to swim the river — takes you from modern South Africa to Pondoland, South Africa’s least economically developed region, which under apartheid white rule was the nominally independent tribal homeland of Transkei. State power lines and plumbing still don’t go to these villages. There are instead wells, drainage pits, and the occasional rooftop solar panel.

The region is also an environmentally important area, a transition zone between sub-tropical and temperate climates. Its sweeping hillsides, dunes, seasonal wetlands, woodlands, estuaries, and offshore reefs are a biodiversity hotspot. Ecologists have designated the region as the Pondoland Center for Plant Endemism, with a host of species found nowhere else in the world. 

Crossing the footbridge, I found a constant stream of villagers. Some used it to go to work at the casino, others to attend school. I met an elderly woman, Alice Mbuthuma, carrying a huge bundle of firewood on her head. She had a great smile and seemed in no hurry. 

Rhadebe’s murder is one of many that villagers say resulted from the mining dispute and were perpetrated by killers in their midst.

Alice turned out to be the mother of a woman I had come to see on the other side, Nonhle Mbuthuma, a colleague of Rhadebe in the fierce campaign for the land rights of the people of Pondoland. A couple of hours before he was killed, the 50-year-old Rhadebe, who ran a local taxi company, had called Mbuthuma to warn of rumors they were both on a hit list because of their opposition to the mine.

Mbuthuma was waiting for me in Xolobeni, a village in Pondoland with expansive views across fields and dunes toward the Indian Ocean. Xolobeni has become the heart of the revolt against the mining plan that would take much of this land. “You met my mother? Carrying firewood?” she asked in surprise. She had just flown back from a solidarity meeting with grassroots activists in Kenya. Since Rhadebe’s slaying, she has had a constant bodyguard.

Mbuthuma still has her mother’s smile. Her life and that of her mother have been hugely different — one a villager collecting firewood, the other an activist whose work has attracted international attention. But they remain close. And that element of continuity at the heart of this community could bode ill for Mark Caruso, the chairman of an Australian company called Mineral Resource Commodities (MRC).

Almost two decades ago, he identified the sand dunes that extend along the coast of eastern Pondoland and up to two kilometers inland as among the world’s 10 richest reserves of ilmenite, the ore that contains the metal titanium. MRC’s South African subsidiary Transworld Energy and Minerals (TEM), with a local partner, the Xolobeni Empowerment Company (Xolco), has applied for mining rights.

But, far from embracing this project as a potential economic boon, many of the residents of the five villages adjacent to the dunes reject it. They say their world would be destroyed by mining. Coordinated by the Amadiba Crisis Committee set up by Rhadebe, Mbuthuma, and community elders a decade ago, and backed by South African human rights lawyers, these villagers have taken on Caruso and asserted their rights under customary law to veto any mining plan. 

The sand dunes that stretch along the Pondoland coast and up to two kilometers inland are believed to contain some of the world’s richest reserves of titanium.

Pondoland's sand dunes stretch along the Indian Ocean coast and up to two kilometers inland. Krisanne Johnson for Yale e360

The case has deeply split the communities of Pondoland, with some tribal leaders backing the mines. Chief Lunga Baleni has been made a director of both TEM and Xolco. The opponents don’t say the mining companies directly killed Rhadebe. But they do say the mining plan, and the creation of companies like Xolco, has created an atmosphere in which some members of their own community, eager to profit from future mining, have become violent.

What I had not realized before my visit is that Rhadebe’s murder is one of many that villagers say have resulted from the mining dispute and were perpetrated by killers in their midst, with the weapons of choice ranging from traditional poisons to bush knives and guns.

There are killing fields in Pondoland, and they are part of a global pattern. The NGO Global Witness has logged about 200 such slayings in each of the past two years, in what it regards as an epidemic of violence against environmental and land rights activists who seek to block development projects ranging from mines, to dams, to timber cutting, to agricultural plantations. Communities that take a stand against such projects, Global Witness reports, “are finding themselves in the firing line.”

Xolobeni is the village closest to the dunes and to the Kwanyana block, which, with the richest reserves of titanium, is the area of the dunes earmarked for mining first. That is where I had come to hear Mbuthuma speak. With her bodyguard hovering outside, she was chairing a packed meeting in the village’s crude metal-roofed community hall. 

From the hall, we could see the dunes stretching for 10 kilometers in either direction, all the way to the footbridge, and coming inland for 1.5 kilometers, almost to the door of the community hall. 

‘If we stay together, we can change mining not just here in Xolobeni but in all of South Africa.’

Some 300 people had walked for miles to the hall to hear a report from the lawyers who were contesting the companies’ application for a mining license. And at the meeting they started another action that formally initiated the process. Local headwoman Duduzile Baleni signed an affidavit addressed to the High Court in Pretoria on behalf of her people, asking it to declare that the minerals minister does not have the authority to grant mining rights on any land held under customary tribal law.

That is the legal issue at the core of their dispute, according to Henk Smith of the Johannesburg-based Legal Resources Center, which is backing the legal actions: the question of where state law ends and customary law begins.

This is no abstract matter for the people of Xolobeni. “You fought to protect your land under apartheid,” lawyer Johan Lorenzen told the meeting. He was recalling the Mpondo revolt in 1960-62, the first substantive uprising against apartheid. “Until you make a decision in customary law, there can be no mining,” he said, pausing for translation into the local Pondo dialect. “The fight is going to be long. But your voice is being heard. If we stay together we can change mining not just here in Xolobeni, but in all of South Africa.” That rallying cry brought the assembly to its feet. 

Residents at a community meeting in Xolobeni held to discuss opposition to the proposed strip mine.

Residents at a community meeting in Xolobeni held to discuss opposition to the proposed mine. Krisanne Johnson for Yale e360

But things are not quite so simple. Under pressure from the mining companies, customary law — the traditional rules established under local chiefs and headmen — is finding it hard to adapt. Who is in charge of the customary process? Is it bottom-up democracy, or dictatorship driven by the chiefs? In an apparent effort to snuff out opposition to mining, the pro-mining chief, Lunga Baleni, had recently dismissed the villagers’ local headwoman, Duduzile Baleni. But her villagers say the chief is not entitled to do that.

“The chiefs of Pondoland don’t come before the people,” says Mbuthuma.

That internal conflict was one reason why the meeting in the hall was so important. The large and enthusiastic attendance showed that the headwoman had the support of her community in opposing the mine. They witnessed her signing the affidavit, along with a commissioner of oaths, Piet Beukes of the non-profit Bench Marks Foundation, brought in for the occasion. As the papers were signed, the crowd of more than 300 rose from their wooden benches and unleashed defiant chants against the miners and condemning the killing of Rhadebe.

The people here feel angry, but also besieged. They believe the government has deliberately starved them of investment in basic services like piped water and electricity because they refuse to accept the government’s priorities for economic development. 

Villager Mathentombi Dimane questions anti-mining leaders at the community meeting in Xolobeni.

Mathentombi Dimane asks a question at the community meeting in Xolobeni Krisanne Johnson for Yale e360

They want development, these villagers say, but they don’t want their land stripped bare. While some of the area designated for mining consists of barren dunes, much of it is grassland that villagers use for pasture and kitchen gardens and that contains ancestral graveyards — all of which could be lost. And villagers do not want the only infrastructure project they are being offered, a parallel plan — considered essential to the mining project — to extend the coastal highway from Port Edward right through their land. 

Many in Pondoland see tourism as a far more attractive development alternative than mining. “We’d be in favor of tourism, provided we were involved,” said Mbuthuma. The potential here is huge. The coastline is spectacular. Before the mining scheme came along, the whole roadless stretch of coastal east Pondoland was zoned for conservation and tourism.

There is much of value to conserve. It is the last surviving “wild” stretch of what has long been known as South Africa’s Wild Coast. The newly created mining zone will rip out the heart of the ecological area known as the Pondoland Center of Endemism. With almost 200 known endemic species, it is South Africa’s second richest botanical reserve — after the more famous fynbos region in the Western Cape — with species unknown elsewhere, including the Pondo coconut, the Pondo ghost bush, and Pondo poison pea.

According to an environmental management plan commissioning by TEM, the Kwanyana block has seasonal wetlands, dune forests, and “coastal grassland with a wide range of grass species.” Offshore is the Pondoland Marine Protected Area, which includes “some of South Africa’s most pristine estuaries.” Established in 2004, the protected zone stretches from the Mzamba River for the length of the proposed mining area, and it contains subtropical reefs and several endemic species of sparid fish. 

Published mining proposals insist that only small areas of the dunes will be mined at a time, that the first line of dunes will be left intact, and the landscape will be rehabilitated afterward for arable farming. But villagers say that the mine will pollute coastal waters, where they collect crayfish, drain local aquifers, and dry up rivers and wetlands.

The meeting was drawing to a close. Mbuthuma was tiring. Erect and commanding while speaking and chairing the meeting, she slumped perceptively as she left the platform, then looked around for her bodyguard. Outside, her husband — Dick Forslund, a social activist and economist from the Cape Town-based Alternative Information and Development Center — said he was concerned for her safety. He recounted the roll call of the dead among fellow activists in Mbuthuma’s long struggle. It wasn’t just Bazooka.

Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, who led the community opposition to the mining project, was gunned down outside his home last March.

Activist Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, who was murdered last March. Courtesy of the Legal Resource Center

Activist Scorpion Dimane was believed poisoned during high tensions over an earlier mining application in 2008. He died mysteriously after speaking out against people who took gifts from the mining company. Two women may have suffered the same fate that year after shouting down a minister at a meeting called to support mining. Traditionally, Forslund said, killing in Pondoland was by poisoning, using one of the medicinal plants in their sacred groves.

In 2015, there was a spate of shootings after heated meetings in Xolobeni about the mining project. A 61-year-old woman was stabbed. Afterward, four men were charged with a range of offenses, including attempted murder, and six others, including directors of Xolco, were given court orders banning them from taking firearms into the community.

After the funeral of Rhadebe, there were attacks on two journalists. Lungani Mkhize, Mbuthuma’s newly assigned bodyguard, came to their rescue. “They ended up in hospital, but would have been killed if we hadn’t intervened,” he told me. In a series of affidavits, villagers have named two people allegedly responsible for the attacks. But nobody has been arrested. 

Following publicity surrounding the murder of Rhadebe, South African minerals minister Mosebenzi Zwane announced an 18-month moratorium on the mining application, while tempers cooled. And the mining magnate behind the scheme, Mark Caruso, ostensibly pulled out of the project, handing over control of TEM to another local partner, Keysha Investments 178, so that the mine could be “managed exclusively by South African people.”

‘The government and the mining company are working hand in hand to make sure the mining takes place,’ Mbuthuma says.

These developments led some outside observers to believe that the community had won a great victory, that the headlines created by the assassination of their leader had had an effect that a decade of peaceful campaigning had not. But the community and its legal advisors doubt anything has really changed. “The government and the mining company are working hand in hand to make sure the mining takes place,” says Mbuthuma.

The evidence suggests she may be right. The new local partner of TEM, Keysha, is an unlikely lead company on a billion-dollar mining project. Company records reviewed at the end of 2016 show its sole active directors are a law services firm and a Pondo chief who also sits on the boards of TEM and Xolco. It has no operating assets or mining experience. And five months after the “divestment,” Caruso and another Australian, Peter Torre, remained as directors of TEM. MRC still appears to be in charge. 

When Yale Environment 360 put this interpretation to the company, its South African public relations consultant Anne Dunn said that, “MRC has no comment.” She also declined to solicit a reply from mining director Lunga Baleni to a question about a potential conflict of interest between his company position and his role as a Pondo chief.

Residents stand outside the packed community hall to listen to reports from local activists and lawyers opposing the mine.

Residents stand outside the packed community hall to listen to an update from mine opposition leaders. Krisanne Johnson for Yale e360

As the meeting in Xolobeni broke up, one man proudly untethered his horse, another picked his mountain bike out of the bushes, but most set off for home on foot, taking the long strides of those used to walking everywhere. I headed with the community’s lawyers for the dunes down by the ocean, where mining could be underway within two years.

They are stunning. British colonial administrators 140 years ago wrote in awe of the “red desert” here, giving the lie to claims that the dunes are a result of over-grazing by villagers’ cattle.

Sheltering from the sun under a bush, we encountered three eight-year-old boys from Xolobeni, resting on their way home from a football match with a neighboring village. They didn’t know about the mining row. But one ended our conversation with the request, “Can you give me a job?”

Returning to Xolobeni, we passed small gardens where villagers grow maize, sweet potatoes, guava, sugar cane, and what looked like cannabis plants. By the community hall, behind the latrines, was a small sacred grove of trees, where medicinal plants — and poisons, likely — are grown.

The hall was deserted. But on a nearby hillock, Mbuthuma was scouring the horizon for the remaining outsiders. Bringing us onto traditional lands carried the responsibility to see us safely departed before nightfall. In a place where killings are all too frequent, it could be dangerous to linger. 


The community meeting called to discuss efforts to block the mining project drew an overflow crowd.
Nokwamkela Mteki asks a question at the meeting in Xolobeni.
After the meeting in Xolobeni, villagers headed home on foot.
Under apartheid white rule, Pondoland was the nominally independent tribal homeland of Transkei.
Alice Mbuthuma, whose daughter Nonhle is a leading opponent of the mining project, carries firewood after crossing the footbridge connecting Pondoland with Port Edward.
Pondoland is an ecologically important region, with expansive dunes and a host of endemic species.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided travel funding for reporting this article.