Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Death in the Family redux

Stanley - Thursday

We have always said that the backstory of the fifth Detective Kubu book, A Death in the Family, is the growing influence of the Chinese in Botswana. (Unfortunately, the track record of the Chinese projects is spotty at best. You can read about them here.)

It took me a long time to realise that there is a second, equally important backstory.

In the book, a Chinese-run mine near the town of Shoshong wants to expand. One of the ramifications of this is that the chief and his counsellors have to consider a request from the mine to relocate some of the locals to another area. In typical African fashion, the chief calls the people in the area to attend a kgotla - a town hall meeting if you like - to discuss the proposal. 

The kgotla quickly deteriorates into chaos as the unemployed youth in the area challenge the chief and his old counsellors, demanding that the mine be allowed to expand because of the jobs that will become available. The elders of the group caution that to do so would destroy the culture of the town - that earlier promises the mine made to provide modern homes for those who had to be moved were never kept  A riot ensues, and people, including the chief, are killed.

This second backstory - the clash of cultures and generations - is not new, of course, and can be seen playing itself out time and time again.

Moving from fiction to fact, I have been reading for some time about an area called Xolobeni on the spectacular Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Nearly twenty years ago, a very large deposit of rare minerals (ilmenite, titanium-iron oxide, rutile, zircon, and leucoxene) was found there. An Australian company, Mineral Sands Resources (MSR), applied to mine an area about 1.5 km wide by 22 km long (about 1 x 16 miles). The rights were granted in 2008, suspended after legal action, and officially revoked in 2011. In 2015, the company applied once again through one of its subsidiaries, Transworld Energy and Resources.

Mineral-rich Wild Coast land

In 2016, MSR told its shareholders that the South African government supported its application. The Department of Mineral Resources disputed this claim, and in 2018, the high court ruled that mining could only take place with the informed consent of the Xolobeni community or if the state expropriated the land.

The Minister of Mineral Resources applied for leave to appeal the ruling but, to date, the state has not pursued the appeal. Since a 2019 meeting in Xolobeni, which ended with teargas and rubber bullets, the minister has not been back to the area.

As with the situation at Shoshong in our book, the possibility of having a mine has split the community.

Residents within the mining area are for the most part small-plot farmers, and there is great concern about water. MSR estimates that it will use 13 to 15 million tons of water every year. Most people rely on streams for their water, and only one in five households rely on a water service. They would be devastated if their water sources dried up.

Small-plot farmer

Streams are often the only source of water.

The locals also believe the land they have is not only their source of food but also a heritage they can pass on to their children. Often the land has been in the family for generations.

Those opposing the mine have been supported by several organisations, which have provided legal and organisational assistance.

In favour of the mine are those desperate for jobs. The unemployment rate in the area is over 50%, with the average wage in the area being about US$100 per month, some of which comes from servicing the tourist industry. So the idea of a mine providing employment is very appealing. However, it is interesting to note that an environmental impact study conducted in 2007 by MSR's parent company noted “The potential direct employment opportunities for the local community are likely to be limited,” because of the lack of required skills.

In the associated environmental management plan, the parent company said: “The community who will be most severely impacted by the proposed development are unlikely to benefit significantly from the permanent employment opportunities associated with the mine.”

Despite the poor prognosis for the community, it is understandable that those without work would want to take a chance that the mine would help them.

The whole process seems to be on hold at the moment, however people opposing the mine are claiming that politicians and businessmen are buying into the project - a situation, they say, bodes no good for the community. 

As was the case in our book, violence has reared its ugly head. For example, Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe, the chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, one of the groups opposing the mining, was assassinated, and others opposing the mine have either died in mysterious circumstances or have been threatened with their lives. There have been startling allegations that the police have purposefully impeded the investigation into Radebe's murder. For more on that, read here.

Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe

I fear that there will be more violence to come.

I don't know what the solution is, but I would advise the residents of Xolobeni to insist that all promises are kept and completed before the issue is finalised. That is, if they are promised new homes and equivalent land, they need to see those before agreeing to move. Otherwise, like at Shoshong, they may find themselves worse off than than they were before.

You can read more about the situation here.

(Much of the information for this blog came from an article in South Africa's Daily Maverick titled Xolobeni: where the discovery of rare minerals has led to violence and murder by Daniel Steyn and Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik)

1 comment:

  1. Once again, you and Michael called it! Now, if only there were a realistic chance of writing a happy ending to this ongoing true story.