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Community Activism and Environmental Justice: The Battle Against Mining in South Africa

In 2016, Tendele, a subsidiary of South African company Petmin, was granted a license to expand its operations into ten new areas. Despite scaling back its plans, Tendele intended to extend its operations by 17.66 square kilometres by June 2022, which would have swallowed the villages of Emalahleni, Ophondweni, and Mahujini. However, the company faced strong resistance from Mhlongo and the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), a community group formed to oppose mining in the area.

In 2018, MCEJO challenged Tendele's license to expand, arguing that affected landowners had yet to be informed or consulted as required by South African law, including the National Environment Management Act (NEMA). After years of court proceedings, a judge in the Pretoria High Court recognized fundamental breaches of the process by Tendele, slamming the company for its exclusion of the community, which started with deficiencies in the sending out notices.

While the judge did not set the mining right aside, he ordered Tendele to redo the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process from the beginning, starting with the scoping exercise. Scoping is the compulsory initial phase during which an applicant allows those who will be affected to put forward their views and concerns.

Tendele started the new scoping exercise shortly after the judgment was handed down in May. However, the process has been criticized by All Rise Attorneys, who represent MCEJO in the appeal case. According to attorney Janice Tooley, one of the flaws is that it is shadowed by intimidation. Tendele's first environmental assessment practitioner relied on the Mpukunyoni Traditional Authority to distribute notices and organize public consultation meetings in July. MCEJO's lawyers rejected this due to the high-tension levels within the communities.

According to an anonymous member of MCEJO, people are afraid to speak up because of fear of being reprimanded. She alleged hit lists and threats, possibly from local contractors and other businesses providing services to Tendele. The traditional leadership does not tolerate criticism of the mine, she said. MCEJO and the other applicants in the court case have accused the traditional leadership of siding with the mine and fueling deepening divisions in the communities.

Since the murder of local anti-mining activist Mam' Fikile Ntshangase almost precisely two years ago, the atmosphere has been tense. Ntshangase, a fierce opponent of the expansion of the mine, was shot by unknown gunmen in her house in Ophondweni. Threats and attacks have become part of life in many mining-affected communities around South Africa. According to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, in KwaZulu-Natal alone, more than 50 mining-related killings and attempted killings occurred between 2016 and 2020, often related to land issues and conflicts with the traditional authority.

The case of Tendele and MCEJO is just one example of the conflicts that arise between mining companies and communities in many parts of the world. The interests and rights of affected communities must be considered, and transparent and fair processes must be followed. The mining industry has the potential to bring significant economic benefits, but this must not come at the expense of the environment and local communities.