Mineworkers take part in a march at Lonmin's Marikana mine in this file photo. Picture: REUTERS
Mineworkers take part in a march at Lonmin's Marikana mine in this file photo. Picture: REUTERS

Community activists who oppose mining projects in SA are often harassed, threatened and sometimes killed, according to a report by advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW).

While SA has one of the world’s biggest mining industries, the activities of companies extracting metals and minerals ranging from platinum to coal have often run afoul of communities due to the impact they have on land use — ranging from traditional burial grounds to grazing — as well as the water and air pollution they cause. The projects often divide communities as they also bring jobs and other opportunities.

Municipalities frequently block attempts by communities to protest against projects by using reasons that have no basis in law, HRW said on Tuesday in a report, “We Know Our Lives Are in Danger”, prepared with groundWork, Earthjustice and the Centre for Environmental Rights.

Peaceful demonstrations are often violently broken up by police, it said.

There are “threats to personal security of community-rights defenders and environmental groups, restrictive interpretation of protest laws, police violence and harassment” through legal filings or social-media campaigns, the groups said. These have “contributed to an environment of fear in some mining-affected communities”.

Unsolved murder

The report documents threats and attacks in four provinces from 2013 to 2018 and shows their origins are often unknown, although activists believe they were initiated by the police, government officials, private security companies or other groups acting on behalf of mining companies.

The report makes reference to the March 2016 murder of Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, the chair of a community-based organisation formed to oppose mineral-sands mining by Mineral Commodities in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape. Police have not identified any suspects in the killing.

Communities also complain that they receive few benefits from the mines despite their lives being disrupted through relocations and pollution. Their concerns are ignored by both the local municipalities and the police, the report reads.

“The only thing we get from those mines and power stations is the challenge of air pollution,” said Sylvia Sebina, a community activist from the eastern town of Lephalale, which lies at the heart of the country’s coal industry.

“We are no longer putting our trust in the police because they are the ones who are killing us, who are shooting us,” she said at a media briefing in Johannesburg.

Community protests

The report recommends that local authorities, government departments and the police follow the country’s laws when dealing with community protests.

Municipalities have been “turning protest applications into a permission-seeking exercise” when all that is required by law is a notification, said Katharina Rall, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The Minerals Council SA, which represents 77 mining companies operating in the country, said it is not aware of any threats or attacks on activists near its members’ mines, the report reads.