As a child, Nonhle Mbuthuma would wake up in her family’s thatched hut listening to the waves crashing on South Africa’s Wild Coast , then go and play on the sand dunes, head off to school or help her parents cultivate sweet potatoes and bananas on the family plot.
Today, she can rarely stay in the same place for any length of time and is more likely to be keeping her ears alert to signs of danger. At times she needs bodyguards or goes into hiding.
“I wake up each morning and thank god I am still alive,” said the Amadiba woman, who has been told she is on a hit list. “I know I am a target. My husband and my family and friends are worried. They tell me to go into hiding. But I can’t do that. It’s not me. I choose this road.”
She is battling for her community’s right to say no to the exploitation of their territory.
South African judges have been considering this question since 20 April, when Mbuthuma and her neighbours got their day in court against an Australian mining company that has pushed for access to lucrative titanium deposits discovered in the russet dunes where she used to play.
Defence of this land – located in an ecologically rich coastal region of Pondoland – has pitted Mbuthuma against her tribal chief and the regional government. Several of her fellow campaigners have been killed after being warned not to oppose a project that would bring jobs and money to one of the poorest regions in South Africa.
Mbuthuma is uncowed. She says residents of her village of Xolobeni are overwhelmingly opposed and without their approval, the mining company and its supporters should back off.
“The law says we have a right to be consulted, but what we say doesn’t seem to matter. We have told the company many times that we don’t want their mine. How many times do we have to say no?” she asks.
The 42-year-old is an accidental activist. During her teens, she found work as guide for foreigners wanting to see the Pondoland biodiversity zone which sits between sub-tropical and temperate climates. As well as a multitude of endemic species, visitors were attracted by whales off the coast and rugged inland landscape that was used for the set of the film Blood Diamond. With the European Union planning to back further eco-tourism projects, it looked for a while as if this could be a turning point in the development of this region,
Life changed with the arrival of an Australian mining company Mineral Commodities with still bigger investment plans to turn the area into an opencast pit for the extraction of zircon, rutile and titanium, which is used in countless products including laptop computers, bicycles, golf clubs, watches and drill bits.
The proposal, which aimed to generate annual revenues of £140m for the 25-year life of the mine, divided the Amadiba community.
Those living in the inland half were largely in favour because their land would be relatively unaffected, they would have a new road and the possibility of jobs.
Residents closer to the coast were opposed. They feared they would lose their farms, that rivers would be contaminated, wildlife driven away and future generations condemned to a miserable existence in townships.
They also suspected a racial hangover from the apartheid era. During that period of segregation and white rule, Pondoland was designated a homeland under black tribal rule. This meant nominal political autonomy but economic neglect. Twenty-six years on, Mbuthuma says its legacy remains.
“Why are they doing this here? Why not in a white area? It is because it is cheaper. Discrimination is still entrenched in our economy.”
Her inspiration is her grandfather, a veteran of the 1960 Pondoland revolt, one of the first major protests against apartheid.
“He told me all the stories about how he used to fight and why. It was to keep the land and ensure the people are happy. Now he says it is up to me, that my decisions must not hurt the next generation.”
She says her tribe’s current chieftain has failed in this task by accepting a directorship in the mining company and a new 4×4 in return for approving a deal he had no right to make. Tradition, she said, dictated that such big decisions could only be made by consensus at a meeting in the great hall of the tribe.
The mining company said it was listening to community leaders and opponents’ fears are largely unfounded. It promised not to destroy homes, to leave dunes untouched, to create buffer zones beside ecologically sensitive areas and to restore the land after the work is finished.
“The company believes that the development of the mine and the balancing of the environmental impacts with the social and economic upliftment can be managed to the satisfaction of all stakeholders,” said Mark Caruso, executive chairman of Mineral Commodities, which is now in the process of divesting its 56% share in the project.
What nobody doubts is that the once strong community is now violently divided.
Mbuthuma and others opposed to the mine formed the Amadiba crisis committee in 2007. In 2015, four of their members were assaulted in the wake of a visit by mining consultants. A year later, the leader of the group, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe – was shot dead after he organised a road block to forestall drilling operations.
Mbuthuma feels threatened by the supporters of the mining project.
“Bazooka said we were on a hit list. He warned me to go into hiding,” she said. “His last words to me were ‘Go home, stay indoors. Those guys are after us’.”
Although she does not trust the police, she has faith in the courts and the power of international public opinion. In the wake of Rhadebe’s killing, the government imposed a moratorium on the mining project. It is due to expire later this year, but Mbuthuma hopes her legal case, which was heard in the Pretoria high court in April 2018, will be decided before then.
Her lawyer, Johan Lorenzen, says judges have the chance to clear a hangover of the apartheid era by recognising the right of communities like Xolobeni to say no to mineral extraction. “Mining is South Africa’s original sin. There’s a fetish around it,” he said. “But this case can be precedent-making. If we win, it will dramatically change the power dynamics.”
Mbuthuma sees the issue more in terms of choice and participation. She is not rejecting investments, but wants to be sure they are not destructive and that they serve local people over the long term.
“When it comes to development, you have to be involved. You can’t just think about now. You have to think about tomorrow.”