While South Africa 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 because of 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 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.”
The report documents threats and attacks in four provinces between 2013 and 2018 and shows their origins are often unknown, though 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 chairman of a community-based organization formed to oppose mineral-sands mining by Mineral Commodities in Xolobeni, in the Eastern Cape. To date, police haven’t identified any suspects in his killing.
Communities also complain that they get few benefits from the mines even as their lives are disrupted through relocations and pollution. Their concerns are ignored by both the local municipalities and the police, according to the report.
“The only thing we get from those mines and power stations is the challenge or 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 press briefing in Johannesburg.
The report recommends 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 of South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies operating in South Africa, said it’s not aware of any threats or attacks on activists near its members’ mines, according to the report.