Activists Against South Africa’s Deep-Sea Mining Face Harm

4 weeks ago Fidelis Zvomuya

Despite mining activism being the most deadly and dangerous form of activism in South Africa, its protestors stand strong against opposition, threats and harm.

Bongani Mokoena, a fisher and environment activist from an informal settlement in Harare, Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, has been a lone voice against deep-sea mining set to take place offshore. He has been fishing in Western Cape for 28 years and has been opposing the government’s granting of three prospecting rights for marine phosphate in the country’s exclusive economic zone to Green Flash Trading 251 (Pty) Ltd, Green Flash Trading 257 (Pty) Ltd and Diamond Fields International. 

“Intimidation and scare tactics won’t work,” Mokoena said. Since 2014 he has been receiving death threats mostly from those who think the mining venture is to bring in jobs. “I have been labelled as a radical and extreme anarchist, but I am not scared. I will continue to demand accountability and respect for the environment.” 

 During this year’s 26th Investing in Africa Mining Indaba, he and other activists stormed the DoubleTree Hotel in Cape Town, bringing the conservative venue to a standstill. He was beaten by the police and tear gassed. 

“As a fisherman, the sea is my gold mine,” he said.It is my work station. I know what mining can do to the environment and also to ocean life.” 

Fear within the mining industry

Thousands of activists live in fear in South Africa. They are targeted with anti-protest laws and big money lawsuits. Criminalisation and disinformation are common strategies used to repress and weaken activists, organisations and communities that protect the environment. 

They haven’t started mining the sea for phosphate as yet. But the signs are there. The country and many others within the continent are set to dig their seas. Last year in May, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), in partnership with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the United Kingdom government, hosted a workshop on deep-sea mining.

South African mining littered with blood

The country’s mining industry is littered with blood. Despite deep sea mining opposition not recording any fatalities as yet, the signs are there. 

The intersection between multinational mining companies, traditional authority, and political elites continues to result in sustained violence against anti-mining community activists. On January 26, Sphamandla Phungula and Mlondolozi Zulu were assassinated in Dannhauser, a coal mining town in rural KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). 

On May 25, Philip Mkhwanazi, who was both an anti-mining activist and an African National Congress councillor, was assassinated in the small coastal town of St. Lucia, also in KZN. A month later, Mzothule Biyela survived an assassination attempt in the area governed by the Mpukunyoni Tribal Authority, also on the north coast of the same province.

A report released by the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch said the attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

The 74-page report “We Know Our Lives Are in Danger: Environmental of Fear in South Africa’s Mining Affected Communities” revealed that damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities highlights the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. 

Police misconduct

The report revealed a pattern of police misconduct during peaceful protests in mining affected communities, including violently stopping protests or unjustified and arbitrary arrests and detentions of protestors.

The report revealed that, “Also the country’s courts serve as an important venue for some mining companies to silence opposition to mining projects. Some companies have tried to intimidate activists through the court system by asking for cost penalties, using court interdicts to prevent protests.”

The report added that one company also used social media campaigns to harass activists and organizations who are challenging them. Harassing social media campaigns can take an emotional toll on the activists.

According to Crime Analyst Kobus Louw, this is just the tip of a much larger violence iceberg against environmental and mining activists. 

“The mining industry and militarisation are twins,” Louw said. “The mind virus of the mining capitalist project has proven so infectious and deadly. Thousands have lost their lives and many more still remain on the hit lists and are staying in hiding.”

Namibian activists labelled ‘Fishrot’

Environmentalists and the fishing industries in Namibia, backed by international scientists and critics, argued against the seabed mining of phosphate in their coastal waters. Their concerns that seabed mining would destroy the environment and jeopardise the fishing industry was heard and acted upon by the Namibian government.

Namibian Marine Phosphate Pty Limited’s (NMP) proposed Sandpiper project attracted significant opposition from local and international environmental groups. The marine phosphate project, approximately 60 km off the coast of Namibia, covers a total area of approximately 7,000 km2 in the regional phosphate enriched province to the south of Walvis Bay in water depths of 180 to 300m.

In 2012, NMP was granted a mining permit by the government. But after a concerted ruckus, the government was forced to withdraw the environmental clearance certificate in November 2016. NMP said objections to its Sandpiper phosphate project are being led by individuals now involved in the Fishrot scandal. This is in reference to seven men charged in two criminal cases about alleged multimillion-dollar corruption and fraud in Namibia’s fishing industry.

“Those involved and those against the phosphate project cannot be trusted to act in Namibia’s best interests,” NMP said in a statement early this year. “The individuals involved seem to have placed their own interests above those of Namibia’s marine environment, fish resources, job creation and social upliftment.”