Defending Communities and the Environment

By Robby Mokgalaka

Life in Somkhele - a rural village in northern part of KwaZulu-Natal - has not been the same since the opening of a coal mine in 2011. The mine has not only brought the continuous buzz of mining’s heavy machinery. It also brought with it, coal dust, potholes on roads, land destruction, water pollution and water flow disruption, unfair relocation settlements and forced removals, exhumations and relocation of graves, greed, and violence. And all of this has been met with constant and unshaken resistance from local activists.

During this time of lockdowns and Covid-19, Somkhele activists and members of the community are being targeted by the pro-mine group for opposing the relocation proposed by the Somkhele Coal Mine to make way for its expansion – demanding more land for their dirty operation.

Between March and April 2020, two Somkhele families (identity reserved) have been attacked for standing up against the coal mine and refusing to move. One family’s house was riddled with bullets through the windows in an attempt to kill them. groundWork together with CER facilitated a process for the family to assisted through the human rights defenders fund, to upgrade their home security in order to fend off further attacks.

The Human Rights Defenders campaign was established in 2019 to help human rights defenders in cases of emergency whereby there are threats or attacks directed to them. The establishment of the campaign was motivated by the collaborative research by groundWork, Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), Human Right Watch (HRW) and EarthJustice which produced the report, ‘We Know Our Lives Are in Danger’.

The report is the output of research that was carried out between 2013 and 2018 documenting the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape provinces. The report cites activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects in their communities. The outcome of the research confirmed that there were intimidations, threats and attacks perpetrated towards human rights defenders and made recommendations to all stakeholders.

During the launch of the report, the Open Society Foundation joined groundWork and CER in a discussion which led to the establishment of the Human Rights Defenders Fund aiming to provide financial need to human rights defenders for their own safety and security. Parallel to this process, CER and groundWork launched a campaign called, Asinaloyiko (We have no fear). The campaign was aimed at responding to the ‘SLAPP’ suits – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which a corporate bullying to environmental activists and NGO’s intended to censorintimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

The assistance from environmental defenders’ funds does not begin and end with financial provision, but also employs other strategies for activists to defend themselves. For example, groundWork also assisted in the establishment of a community watchdog in Somkhele, this consists of environmental activists looking out for each other and alerting one another in case of any incidents occurring in their community. Activists are also provided with resources such as airtimes, data, and a Whatsapp group is created for communication to flow. This strategy is at its pilot stage and is monitored constantly with an aim of implementing elsewhere in communities where attacks are happening.

Robby Mokgalaka is a Coal Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA

This article appeared in The Mercury. You can view the original press clipping here.