Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

PLATINUM is very close to my heart. A platinum stent keeps the blood coursing through my left ventricle. It has allowed me to live for a decade longer than might have been the case when chest pains signalled an impending heart attack in 2002. Thank God for a small mercy that has paradoxically given a large boost to my social work, which is now focused on challenging the heartbreaking social and environmental injustices in the mining industry.

For the past seven years, my focus has been on the Pondoland Wild Coast, working to expose injustices with respect to the ambition by an Australian venture capital company, MRC, to mine heavy mineral deposits in the amaDiba tribal area known as the Xolobeni mineral sands.

Marikana is a tragedy now in the past — the consequence of the inability of stakeholders to deal with social injustices. Now, another ominous threat of injustice looms — the environmental injustice of lifting the moratorium on plans to frack the Karoo for shale gas. As a country encrusted with vast mineral wealth, social and environmental injustices will continue to blight our history unless we deeply embrace the lessons on offer from the Xolobeni mining conflict on the Wild Coast.

Let us ponder two absurdly ironic injustices from Pondoland.

First, the environmental injustice. When Henry Francis Fynn left Port Natal in 1824 and crossed the Mzamba River on a prospecting expedition for ivory, he noted in his diary, while traversing a stretch of 22km of coastline between the Mzamba and Mntentu estuaries, "in the course of the day’s tedious march we met several droves of elephants". It took a mere 25 years before Fynn shot the last remaining elephant in Pondoland.

The elephants are all gone, but this same stretch of coastline still contains 9-million tons of ilmenite and other heavy mineral deposits, which MRC claims to be the "10th-largest heavy mineral deposit in the world". Together with plans to frack the Karoo, the new N2 Wild Coast Toll Road is in the new National Development Plan and, according to newly appointed MRC CEO Andrew Lashbrooke, perfectly designed to satisfy the ambition of MRC to truck the heavy mineral concentrate to East London for smelting and export. MRC says it will take about 25 years to do so.

We could theoretically repopulate the Wild Coast with big tuskers, but once the nonrenewable mineral deposits have been mined, they will be gone forever, perhaps to be used in future space-age applications, such as the Mars Curiosity Rover, which is largely made from titanium.

Does it make any sense to put our biodiversity at further risk by extracting nonrenewable resources in the present — be they deposits of shale gas, titanium or platinum — without a net gain in the capacity of the earth to sustain life in the future?

Such decisions can never be left to politicians, whatever their ideological complexion, for, at best, their time horizons can stretch only to the next election. In SA right now, that is a mere three months.

If not politicians, what about business leaders? The chairman of Shell SA, Bonang Mohale, argued at a Gordon Institute for Business Science forum last year that Shell did not work on mere "quarterly reporting cycles", but in terms of "200-year planning horizons". I asked him if Shell had identified another life-supporting planet in close commuting distance with whom we can trade our surplus carbon dioxide emissions and toxic wastes for their biodiversity? Alas, the information coming from the Curiosity Rover on Mars is not promising. All it is showing is a sterile, lifeless planet.

We chatted and Mohale agreed to come with me to a place resplendent with life, the Wild Coast, to meet Samson Gampe and hear his perspective on fracking. He is one of the leaders of the effort to persuade Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu to revoke mining rights over his ancestral lands. A veteran of the Pondo Revolt of 1960, Gampe’s wisdom derives from having lived for more than 80 years attitudinally in and with the earth rather than on and from it. For the sake of future generations, we desperately need the wisdom of such elders. Their accountability not only reaches back to their ancestors, it stretches forward to what is best for the next generation and beyond.

Mohale will hear Gampe talk of his experiences during the Pondo Revolt, when 11 people were killed by police in the Ngcusa Hill massacre. By hiding in forested gorges, he managed to avoid being rounded up with the 4,700 tribesmen who were arrested. Twenty were tried and 12 were executed.

In 2007, his community was trembling on the edge of another uprising. Violence was averted because the lesson of history had been well learned from veterans such as him. Traditional leaders at all three tiers now carry these in their individual consciences and their collective consciousness. It has been the difference that made the difference, to avert another uprising and avoid a Marikana-type massacre. The amaMpondo traditional leadership represents the best of what African hereditary leadership governance can offer; an intergenerational sense of accountability, way beyond winning elections or declaring big dividends to shareholders.

Therein lies the second tragic and absurd irony: the traditional leaders are under attack. The Australian-backed mining company is back to try again to revive the mining rights that were revoked last year. If they are to succeed, they will have to engage with the amaMpondo traditional leaders at all three tiers, who must preside over a participatory process that must deliver a communal land-rights resolution if the mining of their ancestral lands is to go ahead.

King Mpondombini Sigcau is facing a claim on his position from a naive nephew, while the amaDiba chieftain, Lunga Baleni, is facing a claim on his position, brought on behalf of his 11-year-old half-brother by the third wife of his late father.

Rather than repeating the "sins of the fathers" by acquiescing to coercion and co-option, the traditional leaders have chosen to act in the wisdom of their forefather, the great Pondo King Faku (1815-1867), defending the right of the amaDiba coastal residents to decide their local destinies locally without foreign interference and manipulation. The prior, free and informed consent to the mining venture will be required from them.

In 2008, MRC submitted a list of 3,087 names of residents claiming such. Close inspection revealed the list to be bogus. Many names were of long-deceased residents, some of known antimining campaigners, all with forged signatures.

This time around, in a vain attempt to undermine the respected authority of the highly principled local leaders, pro-mining forces trumped up charges against them to have them arrested on the day before a crucial public meeting at which the mining company was to present its case to local residents. Mercifully, the plot failed, and conflict was again steered away from another potentially violent outcome.

The community again responded with a resounding "no" to MRC’s mining proposal. Lashbrooke believes he has complied with the legal requirement to "consult" because "mineral rights belong to the government".

But to whom do human rights belong?

Clarke is a social worker and freelance writer who has been working with the amaMpondo since 2006 to resolve developmental conflict on the Pondoland Wild Coast.