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Xolobeni mining saga: National uprising or Mpondo 'upwising'?

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Moeletsi Mbeki believes that the unemployed masses of South Africa are more vulnerable than other African countries because “we don’t have the cushion of peasant agriculture like other regional economies”. Well, the Amadiba community on the Pondoland Wild Coast does, but that cushion will inevitably be lost if the Executive Chair of MRC Ltd Mark Caruso’s ambition to turn the Xolobeni Mineral Sands into his “company maker” is realised. Behind the recent conflict between pro and anti-mining groupings lies a long term strategy to ‘tame’ the Wild Coast to the crude other-worldly logic of commercial fundamentalism. The mine would only last 25 years before the Perth mining entrepreneur moves on to plunder the next available mineral resource in the name of "development", while the Amadiba will be left with a “hole in the ground, owned by an optimist, operated by a fool and inevitably followed by a lawsuit”, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous definition of a mine.

Since extolling the beauty of the Kwanyana estuary with words borrowed, synchronicity has again contributed more intrigue to the Xolobeni mining narrative. Google has again obligingly played its role too, but in this instance it is Google Earth that has given the angles and elevations.

The website of MRC Ltd. has a corporate video which appears with this opening scene. It is an Eagle eye’s view of the Mnyameni Estuary, the centre point of the Xolobeni Mineral Sands tenement.

Before examining the actual content of the video, if one zooms out to put the Mnyameni Estuary in a larger frame to include the Kwanyana estuary (into which the Rholobeni stream flows its lovely passage) suddenly the whole context changes.

Get the picture? Mark Caruso will decidedly NOT want his investors to see just how close Induna Balasheleni Mtanjelwa Mpotomela Mthwa’s grave is to the Xolobeni mineral sands.

Between MRC’s environmental consultant Piet Badenhorst’s first visit to the Mtolane Village Neighbourhood (for the heated Scoping consultation previously described) and his ill-fated second attempt to gather data for the EIA three weeks later, the angry residents who blocked his convoy of vehicles and forced them to turn back had seen one of their most cherished leaders pass away. They had witnessed his casket slowly descend into his beloved earth in the family graveyard, with the mineral-rich dunes in the background. They had heard the tributes to him, and celebrated his determined resolve to never allow his own or his ancestors’ graves to be disturbed by mining. They had seen his the grave filled with earth and covered over with concrete blocks and mortar.

The mortal remains of Cecil John Rhodes lie restless of any peace in the Matopo’s of Zimbabwe.

The mortal remains of Balasheleni Mtanjelwa Mpothamela Mthwa lie restless of any peace in the mineral sands of Xolobeni.

Rhodes’ story is the old story. Balasheleni embodies a new story of hope. Whose story will prevail?

That depends on the response to the Amadiba Crisis Committee by the two major stakeholders who want the mining to go ahead: The South African government and the shareholders of MRC (the BEE partners Xolco and Blue Bantry only exist by virtue of the Government and MRC, and can be disregarded as substantive entities).

With respect to the SA government, the Amadiba Crisis Committee have made it clear what direction they must now take. In a recent media statement they took a leaf out of their own history book about an astonishing ninth day in September.

“Remember!” said the Minister of mining, “This is your land. It doesn’t matter what kind of paper we come with. You have the final decision.” This was 12 September 2008 at Umgungundlovu. The honourable Minister was Buyelwa Patience Sonjica. She had come to apologise for granting a mining licence to MRC and to listen. She suspended the license. She was removed from this ministry six months later and from Cabinet altogether in November 2010. No politician has ever come since then to ask us, the affected communities, about these destructive plans. Since then everything has been intrigues, forgeries of our names and a flood of bribes. Is it now the time of blood and violence?

No, it is never the time for blood and violence, and the SAPS and prosecuting authorities know what the Constitution obliges them to do, to avoid the Marikana scenario that people fear.

Yesterday, four members of the ACC were due to appear at the Mbizana Magistrate’s Court, having been told that they were charged with “stopping cars”. When their attorneys from the LRC and Richard Spoor Inc. arrived, they were informed that the accused did not have to appear as the charges were still being investigated. They may not even be prosecuted!

It is unclear what has come of charges laid against certain current and former directors of MRC’s BEE partners, the Xolobeni Empowment Company (Xolco) in relation to violent engagements in the community. Eastern Cape SAPS spokesperson, Colonel Sibongile Soci, confirmed that “there was a shooting at Nyanzini Locality, Bizana on Sunday night at about 21:30. Police were dispatched in four vehicles to the crime scene. A licenced firearm was confiscated and sent for ballistic testing. The two occupants of the vehicle, aged 30 and 65 were arrested and charged for negligent discharging of a firearm. The suspects will appear in the Bizana Magistrates Court on 6 May 2015.”

It seems that the dockets on that case have not yet reached the prosecutors. Colonel Soci has however confirmed the allegations of assault “on one woman and two males. Police are investigating the incidents and whether these incidents are related or not, form part of the investigation. The incident took place at Xholobeni Locality, Bizana.”

At least MRC’s shareholders have some certainty that the place where the alleged incidents occurred is the same place where 9 million tons of ilmenite lie buried in the sands, together with mortal remains of Bhalasheleni Mtanjelwa Mpotomela Mthwa.

The proximity of Bhalesheleni’s grave to the dunes is one fact for shareholders to reckon with. The other is that Mark Caruso’s fellow presenter in the MRC corporate video, identified as the CEO of MRC Mr Andrew Lashbrooke, is the CEO no more. Since cutting the film the two men have fallen out badly. By mutual agreement the parties can’t engage in any pre-trial public spat, so we will have to wait until the R20 Million court case commences in the Cape High Court on 1 June. However, since there is no longer any restriction on reporting on court papers, (thanks to Sanral’s foolish attempts to keep court documents out of the public domain having been definitively overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal recently) in short there is a major breakdown of trust it seems, because of Caruso’s ruthless all-consuming greed.

Lashbrooke has reportedly won a major pre-fight stare-down. He has managed to persuade the court to oblige Mark Caruso to give oral evidence. While court-room cross examination doesn’t always reveal whose version of the truth is absolutely correct, it does serve to show who is in the pork pie business.

Paradoxically, MRC’s Corporate Video is honest enough to show just how brutally extractive coastal dune mining is. Until I had seen the video, I was not able to fully comprehend a report alleging the gross violation of environmental laws that has been lodged with Piet Badenhorst (see here) as a public participation input into the scoping process for the Xolobeni mining rights application. It asks how on earth a mining company with the track record of MRC could have the cheek to apply for mining rights in a still more environmentally sensitive place like the Wild Coast?

Given the above context one can understand why Mark Caruso, relying almost entirely on shareholder equity rather than bank loans, has a tough job of reassuring his investors that their money should remain in MRC Ltd.

But if those investors have any doubt about whether now is the time to disinvest, and if they have any shred of ethical sensitivity they should listen to the words spoken by Bhalesheleni’s friend and fellow Induna, Mashona Wetu Dlamini, who represents the Lupithini village on the Umgungundlovu Tribal council, featured in his video. At the regular Thursday Imbizo at the Komkhulu held on 23 April (one week before the confrontation between Xolco and the ACC), his words have a tragic irony to them. Comparing the claims made by Caruso and Lashbrooke, with the heartfelt plea from Mashona Wetu for dialogue, some shareholders must surely change their minds about Caruso and MRC Ltd.

About John GI Clarke

John Clarke hopes to write the wrongs of the world, informed by his experience as a social worker and theologian, to actualise fundamental human rights and satisfy fundamental human needs.  He has lived in the urbanised concentration of Johannesburg, but has worked mainly in the rural reaches of the Wild Coast for the past decade.  From having paid a fortune in toll fees he believes he has earned the right to be critical of Sanral and other extractive institutions, and has not held back while supporting Sustaining the Wild Coast (www.swc.org.za), the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (www.safcei.org.za) and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (www.outa.co.za), in various ways.

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