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Attacks on activists

Saturday, 28 July 2018 14:02
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See below an article that appeared in GroundUp, the Daily Maverick and The Citizen yesterday about recent attacks on activists in South Africa.

Coal mine opponents targeted on social media

By GroundUp• 24 July 2018

“Powerful interests use violence and threats to cut off those defending human rights.”

By John Yeld.

First published by GroundUp.

https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-07-24-coal-mine-opponents-targeted-on-social-media/

Coal mining is a very dirty business. And as a stream of abuse on social media against those challenging a new coal mining venture in one of South Africa’s most critical and formally protected water catchment areas confirms, the dirt isn’t always in the coal dust.

Twitter accusations against a coalition of eight environmental and social justice groups and their lawyers seeking to block the planned Yzermyn Underground Coal Mine development at Mabola in Mpumalanga, include treason, economic sabotage, extortion, bribery, blackmail, duplicity, dishonesty and lies.

They are further accused of being “anti-national, anti-people, anti-development”, and a comparison to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels has been thrown in for good measure.

As ludicrous as it sounds, it’s no laughing matter, and suggests that a Bell Pottinger-style social media harassment strategy may be under way against opponents of the mine project.

Particularly worrying was a thinly veiled death threat made on Facebook last month, aimed at local farmer Oubaas Malan who also opposes the Yzermyn mine but is not involved in the comprehensive legal challenges currently under way by the coalition.

The threat was posted by Thabiso Nene, who heads The Voice Community Representative Council, a registered NPO billed as “a community-based organisation that stands for radical economic transformation” in the Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme local municipality where the would-be mine is located.

What particularly incenses Nene, Tripathi and other supporters of Atha Africa is that an open coal mine, Loskop, has been operating on Malan’s family farm on the same area. However, Malan has countered by pointing out that this is an old mine started in the 1980s – three decades before the Mabola Protected Area was proclaimed – and that he doesn’t own the mining right to it. Although he concedes negotiating a fee from the mining company that most recently owned the mining right and attempted to work the mine, now effectively abandoned, he says it reneged on payments to him and has caused severe environmental damage.

Last month, Malan boasted to the Saturday Star newspaper about his tenacity in tackling Atha Africa. “I’m like a Jack Russell terrier fighting a boerbul. I won’t let go,” he was quoted as saying.

Nene’s lengthy Facebook response included what can be interpreted as a death threat: “As Oubaas say ‘I’m like Jack Russell terrier fighting boerboel. I just won’t let go’ he should watch our community lays Jack Russell terrier to permanent sleep. We r masters in resting dogs with rabies. Obaas can take dat to de bank.”

A formal complaint about the death threat – that now appears to have been removed from Facebook was made to the South African Human Rights Commission. The commission described the threat as “naked criminality” but declined to investigate, suggesting instead that the police should handle the matter because of the violence implicit in it.

Many of the offending tweets in the social media campaign against the coalition have been made by Praveer Tripathi, senior vice-president of the Atha Africa Ventures mining company that plans to develop Yzermyn. It acquired a mining right in 2015 but the granting of this right and various environmental approvals are now being challenged by the coalition.

Tripathi also retweeted, without comment, a tweet by @Madlokovu15 that had in turn repeated the Facebook death threat word-for-word.

Tripathi’s Twitter profile distances him from his employer, suggesting his comments should not be read as signifying his professional position as a senior executive of Atha Africa, a subsidiary of the India-based international mining company Atha Group. The company has also attempted to distance itself from his highly controversial remarks. “Mr Tripathi’s posts on his personal account, are his own personal views and do not mirror the views and opinions of Atha Africa. Accordingly, Atha Africa is not responsible for these comments.”

However, the company has not publicly condemned any of Tripathi’s comments, but asked that questions on the matter be directed to the executive himself.

 

Screen capture from Praveer Tripathi’s Twitter account.

A formal complaint about Tripathi’s earlier social media comments has been lodged with Minerals Council South Africa (formerly the Chamber of Mines) by the Centre for Environmental Rights, a public interest group of attorneys that represents the coalition. Atha Africa Ventures is a Council member and as such is bound by the Council’s mandatory code of ethical business conduct and guiding principles. The Council has yet to respond to the Centre’s complaint.

Tripathi, who has just 70 Twitter followers, last week failed to respond to emailed questions asking him to explain the accusations in his tweets and to comment on their possible consequences. Instead, he posted correspondence from this writer on his Twitter timeline, accompanied by derogatory comments. His posts prompted some of his followers to post their own abusive tweets.

The proposed Yzermyn coal mine lies within the water-rich, protected grasslands of the Ekangala/Drakensberg strategic water source area – one of 22 such areas that collectively comprise just 8% of South Africa’s land yet provide half of all surface run-off water in the form of wetlands, streams and rivers.

Environmentalists argue that coal mining is highly destructive and poisonous to the environment, and is not compatible with biodiversity conservation of pristine areas like Mabola that provide invaluable “ecosystem services” like water. If the project is allowed to continue, the proposed coal mine in Mabola will set a dangerous precedent that will expose all of South Africa’s protected environments to encroachment from mining and other destructive and non-sustainable land uses, they say.

But Mabola is also within an area marked by extreme poverty and unemployment where many local residents are desperate for jobs. So it’s understandable that the possibility of some 500 work opportunities – albeit unskilled – at the proposed mine is highly attractive to some of them.

Residents of Mabola get water from a spring. Photo supplied

The social media invective against coalition members and its lawyers has increased significantly over the past two months as several of the legal challenges to the coal project approach adjudication. The first, an appeal to the Water Tribunal to overturn the water licence granted to Yzermyn, is set down for hearing from Tuesday to Thursday this week.

On 29 June, Nene’s The Voice organised a public meeting in Volksrust that was billed as an open forum debate “to clear misconceptions about the proposed mining project near Wakkerstroom”. Nene posted on Facebook that an invitation had been extended to the management of Atha Africa and that it had confirmed its attendance. “That very progressive Atha management,” he said approvingly.

An invitation was also extended to members of the coalition and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) but it was declined. The Centre told Mining Weekly it would not be appropriate for it to take part in a public debate because of the extensive pending litigation in the matter.

Its refusal prompted a string of Twitter insults from Tripathi, including: “Is the Cenre (sic) for Environmental Rights afraid that it’s lies would be nailed in the #communitywantstoknow initiative by the community? They said the mine will threaten Gauteng and have national and intntnl (sic) impacts. Why don’t they explain the ‘how’ to the community?”

After the meeting, attended by some 1,400 people, Tripathi congratulated Nene for “exposing” the “foreign-funded” and “treasonous” organisations “who have no sympathies and respect for the community”. This allegation of treason was picked up and repeated several times.

However, the only “evidence” they produced to back the allegation was publicly available documents from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) detailing some funding for two of the organisations in the coalition. SIDA is an official Swedish government agency of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, responsible for the bulk of Sweden’s official development assistance to developing countries and civil society groups – including South Africa’s democratic government.

The tactic of social media harassment is becoming increasingly common in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, where vulnerable communities and civil society organisations have been working to protect and promote environmental and social justice in the face of strong-arm and bullying tactics by some governments and big business – notably mining interests.

Threats and intimidation create an emotionally charged atmosphere that makes it harder for communities to achieve resolution, and in some scenarios can result in physical violence, injury, destruction of property and even murder.

A case in point is the tragic death in March 2016 of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe at Mbizana in Pondoland, who was leading opposition to the attempt by Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Ltd to mine mineral sands at Xolobeni. Although the Hawks have not made any progress in their investigation into Radebe’s murder – this was confirmed by spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi last week – it’s widely believed that he was assassinated because of his opposition to the mining proposal.

And as recently as this month, two activists opposing the relocation of a community in KwaDube in KwaZulu-Natal, supposedly to accommodate onshore mining operations between Mthunzini and Richards Bay, were also shot dead execution-style within days of each other.

Murray Hunter of the Right2Know Campaign says threats and attacks from mining companies are part of a bigger trend of corporations trying to bully their critics into silence. “We know from bitter experience that those who go up against big-money mining projects often face worse than threats in the end.”

And Melissa Fourie of the Cape Town-based Centre for Environmental Rights – one of the main targets of the Yzermyn invective – says it’s a common pattern in South Africa. “Within our network of environmental rights activists and defenders, we see threats and intimidation of activists every day, most of these not reported or recorded.”

Neither Tripathi nor Nene responded to a question by this writer when asked whether they considered their respective tweets and/or Facebook posts to be inflammatory or possibly fuelling tensions with potentially dangerous consequences.

However, Tripathi responded on social media to a letter that was sent to Atha Africa’s attorney by the Centre for Environmental Rights, drawing attention to Tripathi’s “inaccurate and defamatory” statements about the Centre. The Centre’s letter noted: “Particularly concerning is that some statements are threatening, and have the potential to incite violence.”

On Twitter, Tripathi accused the CER of being defamatory and of “costing South Africa tens of thousands of jobs and development opportunities” – “The responsibility sits on you,” he charged.

On 5 July, Nene posted a statement on Facebook: “If it’s war they want, it (sic) war they will get”, and added a response to several replies to this statement: “They are busy blocking development that’s suppose to change the life’s. They should just return the damn land once, & they should refrain from threatening us with civil war or economic meltdown.”

Jen Gleason of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide says attacks on people who stand up for vulnerable communities and the environment are on the rise around the world, and that her organisation works with public interest lawyers around the world who are putting themselves at risk daily.

“Powerful interests, inside and outside government, use violence, threats, prosecution, slander, regulatory burdens and more to cut off those defending human rights,” she says. This exposes grass roots advocates “to great personal risk”.

Hunter of Right2Know says it rejects the “corporate bullyism” of Atha-Africa. “We need to protect… critical voices, not just for the sake of environmental governance, but to ensure that corporations working in South Africa respect free speech and freedom of association.”

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

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