The timing of this week’s announcement by Australia’s Mineral Commodities (MRC) that it would sell its 56% stake of the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project is curious: it came exactly a day before a high-powered delegation of three deputy ministers, bearing gifts of ANC T-shirts, visited the contested terrain.
What a coincidence! The largely unwelcome Australians call off their invasion of the land, then immediately the ANC’s heavyweights appear — with many of the proponents of mining in tow.
Deputy ministers Godfrey Oliphant (mineral resources), Pam Tshwete (water & sanitation) and Maggie Sotyu (police) swept across the Pondoland village of Xolobeni in heavy SUVs with blue lights — vehicles belonging to the state.
They came to try to convince the people that they must move off the land and make way for mining because "one of our own has now bought the asset".
A certain Mzwandile Maxwell Maraqana, who previously stood as a candidate for local councillor for the ANC, and then for Cope in the 2009 national vote, has now emerged as the "buyer" of the 56% stake held by MRC, through Keysha Investments 178.
The Australian company has not yet disclosed the value of the transaction, saying it will do so after "satisfactory commercial negotiations" with Maraqana’s Keysha.
In certain media reports Maraqana is quoted as a spokesman of the Mpondo royal family, which is led by King Zanozuko Sigcau. In the community meeting addressed by the deputy ministers, the king was billed as the keynote speaker.
Yet lawyer Richard Spoor, who represents many in the anti-mining community, and quoting papers filed with the department of mineral resources by MRC, claims Keysha was founded by MRC. Spoor has not been wrong on many occasions.
It’s a murky situation; even the king’s legitimacy is disputed by a faction of his family.
In 2010 the Nhlapho commission of inquiry into traditional leadership found Zanozuko Sigcau to be the legitimate king of the nation stretching from the Mthatha river in the west to uMthamvuna in the east.
The commission stripped the long-time ruler, Mpondombini Sigcau, of the crown that his faction of the Sigcau family had held for decades. The matter is before the constitutional court, where Mpondombini’s immediate family has challenged Zanozuko’s reign.
The strife over mining has divided both the community and the royal family. Those who prefer mining side with Zanozuko while those opposed want Mpondombini’s daughter as the queen in Zanozuko’s place.
"The Xolobeni project not only has the capacity to be a world-class ilmenite asset, but also the catalyst for social transformation of one of SA’s poorest communities," says MRC on its website. It adds that Xolobeni is the 10th largest heavy mineral deposit in the world.
MRC says the area has about 25 years of mineable titanium, and claims it would create 1,600 jobs.
Whatever the merits of the claim, what is clear is that whoever will get to mine the land will have to step over many dead bodies to do so.
The government’s dilly-dallying on the issue has only served to divide the community further. In 2008 it awarded MRC a mining licence, before revoking it three years later after the community appealed.
But the prospecting right is still active, which enabled the proponents of mining to try again last year. That application was followed by more violence. Four people have been killed over the years.
The majority of people who will be directly affected should mining go ahead are opposed to it. Those who want mining are not on the land in question.
More lives will no doubt be lost as each side digs in and stakes its claim. Never has so peaceful a people been so pregnant with deadly anger.