2020 is reported to have been the worst year on record for environmental activists and defenders. A report released this year by Global Witness, which tracks the killing of environmental activists and defenders, says 227 people were killed in 2020 while trying to protect the environment.
South Africa’s Fikile Ntshangase was one of those killed. The 65-year-old was killed in her home in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province, after raising concerns about a coal mine in the area. No arrests have been made since then.
Ntshangase’s daughter Malungelo Xhakaza, who is seeking justice for her mother, recently spoke about her murder. She said it was 7:30 pm on October 22, 2020, when she received a phone call. Upon arriving at her mother’s house in Ophondweni, in South Africa’s eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, she saw the whole place filled with policemen and some of her neighbors. There and then, she knew something bad had happened.
Three men had shot her mom Ntshangase six times in her living room, with one bullet missing her. Xhakaza’s 13-year-old son witnessed the murder. He told the police that he was playing with the dogs in the courtyard of Ntshangase (his grandmother) when three men showed up asking him if anyone was home. They then went in, and that’s when the 13-year-old heard the gunshots.
Last month, Colonel Thembeka Mbele of the South African Police Service in KwaZulu Natal told TRT World that “the matter is still under investigation, [and] no arrests have been made as yet.”
Xhakaza said ever since the murder, they have had police coming to ask questions. “But no one has been caught and no one has been investigated, or properly interrogated,” she told TRT World this November.
Who was Fikile Ntshangase?
Ntshangase, a former teacher and chair of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization (MCEJO), had been involved in a legal dispute over the extension of an opencast mine operated by Tendele Coal near Somkhele, close to Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park, the oldest nature reserve in Africa.
Campaigning as part of the MCEJO, Ntshangase was very loud in condemning the impact of the mine on the health of locals, land, water and homes. “Mama Ntshangase”, as she was called, felt that she needed to stand up for her people in her community and speak on their behalf, or even try and educate them about what was happening and what she was doing about it, her daughter Xhakaza said.
When the company announced it was planning to expand its open-pit mining operations, Ntshangase and MCEJO led a legal challenge against those plans. They raised concerns that expanding operations would harm the health and livelihoods of residents, many of whom are subsistence farmers, as the air and water bodies would be polluted.
Amid the legal dispute, Ntshangase was killed. Tendele Coal has said any connection to the death of the environmental activist is “completely unfounded” and called it a “senseless killing”, the Guardian reported. The company has also argued that failing to expand would mean 1,200 employees would lose their jobs.
“Should the mine be unable very soon to begin opening up an extended area due to these [legal] actions, the mine will be forced to close and will stop operating not later than June 2022,” Nathi Kunene, Business Development Manager at Tendele, told TRT World in a statement.
There are also issues about relocation agreements with families that would need to be resettled to allow for the expanded operations. According to TRT World, litigants in the court case “want the mining right granted to the company in the area to be rescinded over this and other alleged irregularities on how it was obtained.”
On October 22, a year after Ntshangase’s death, Xhakaza and some of her mother’s colleagues, environmental activists, and friends held a protest in front of the local police station. They delivered a letter to officials calling for a proper update on the case.
“All we know is that the people they are suspecting keep changing places,” Xhakaza told TRT last month.
In July this year, Ntshangase’s murder was highlighted in the report of the UN human rights expert on freedom of assembly and association, as an example of the dangers women environmental activists are facing. In March, the UN expert on human rights defenders also used Ntshangase’s story to open a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling attention to threats environmental defenders face across the world.
Human Rights Watch in a 2019 report documented how activists in mining-affected communities across South Africa have experienced threats, physical attacks, or property damage for their activism. In March 2016, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was opposed to mining activities in Xolobeni, in the province of Eastern Cape, was killed at his home after receiving death threats.
In South Africa, mining contributes 8 to 10 percent of the national GDP, and employs over half a million people as of 2019, according to figures cited by TRT World. The sector is dominated by coal production, which employs 20 percent of the mining workforce, TRT World reported.
As people continue to ask if South Africa can overcome its dependence on coal, Human Rights Watch has called on the South African government to take steps to better protect environmental defenders, “beginning by ensuring the police conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into the killing of Ntshangase and ‘Bazooka’ Radebe, an environmental activist murdered in March 2016.”
“Unless those responsible are brought to justice, environmental defenders in South Africa and abroad will continue to live in a climate of fear,” Human Rights Watch said in a report.
This September, Kirsten Youens, Ntshangase’s lawyer, told the Guardian that she is continuing to fight the expansion of the mine.