In the wake of a local activist’s murder, Australian mining interests in Africa are being called into question. By Phillip Walker.

Australian miners in South Africa

Activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe  being spoken  to by police.
Activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe being spoken to by police.
Credit: Facebook

The assassination of South African community activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe was shocking but sadly not surprising.

On the night of his death – March 22 – Radebe had warned his colleagues in the Amadiba Crisis Committee of a hit list. An hour later, two men masquerading as police arrived at Radebe’s house and shot him eight times in the head.

Radebe had been opposing titanium mining at Xolobeni, on the ancestral land of the Pondo people on South Africa’s east coast. The mining company involved is Australian-based Mineral Commodities Limited.

At Radebe’s funeral last weekend, Chief Cinani, representing the Queen and the Royal House of the amaMpondo, criticised the government’s acceptance of Australian investment and investment from the Indian business family the Guptas. “I am blaming the government because the government gave permits for those Australians, while people were saying ‘no’ to the government … It is clear that the business community is ruling the government. It is not only about the Guptas. Now we have seen the Australians. People are coming here with huge sums of money to divide the people.”

Through its director, Mark Caruso, Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC) and its South African subsidiary, Transworld Energy & Minerals Resources (TEM), have long been in dispute with the Amadiba community. The latest tragedy marks an escalation of hostility in a conflict now entering its 10th year.

There were hopes that the international condemnation drawn by the assassination of Radebe might stem the violence, but it is now alleged that after Radebe’s funeral “pro-mining thugs” assaulted three journalists.

Following the killing of Radebe, Caruso issued a statement on behalf of MRC declaring that it was “in no way implicated in any form whatsoever in this incident … This company will not engage in any activity that incites violence.” The Saturday Paper does not suggest Caruso had any involvement in Radebe’s death or any other illegality.

In an email sent last October regarding a taxi contract for the Tormin mine, however, Caruso said he felt “enlivened by the opportunity to grind all resistance to the [sic] my presence and the presence of MSR [another MRC subsidiary] into the animals [sic] of history as a failed campaign.”

In the same email, he cited Ezekiel 25:17: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Elsewhere, he raged against the “group of colluding malfeasant, recalcitrant people and groups who chose to use underhanded nefarious elements to achieve their self-interested objectives”.

The correspondence ended: “It is easier to support us, than work against us.”

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs has reported MRC’s Tormin mine, on South Africa’s west coast, for several contraventions including mining in no-go areas and the use of unauthorised roads. MRC also stands accused of poor environmental practices by allowing a cliff face to collapse, and engaging in substandard land rehabilitation.

At both Tormin and Xolobeni, evidence suggests that MRC and its South African subsidiary are creating communities at war with themselves. Families, communities and tribal authorities are pitted against each other through the selective allocation of benefits and favours.

During a public consultation, subheadman elder Samson Gampe captured local feeling when he declared: “A cow that is a stranger in the herd is always chased by the rest of the herd by showing it horns. This is what we have done today, to tell the world that people of Kwanyana do not want this foreign ‘cow’ – this mining proposal … We need a proposal that brings us together, not the one that brings us conflict.”

Through Transworld Energy & Minerals Resources, MRC seeks to mine 2900 hectares at Xolobeni on South Africa’s Wild Coast. The Amadiba Crisis Committee, representing the local community, has blocked mining licence applications on environmental and ownership grounds.

The communal land in question is held in trust by the minister of land reform on behalf of local residents under communal land tenure. The crisis committee is committed to community-owned ecotourism as a more viable option for themselves and the land. Permission to mine one of the five “blocks” was rescinded on appeal last year.

Speaking in 2012 of the affiliation with ancestral land, the now late amaMpondo king Justice Mpondombini Sigcau said: “Mining the Wild Coast is simply absurd. It can be likened to the slaughter of rhino for their horns: the destruction of endangered species for the short-term commercial profit of greedy foreigners.”

Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a report called Fatal Extraction: Australian Mining Companies Digging a Deadly Footprint in Africa. It reported that Australian mining companies were the most rapidly expanding of all mining investors in Africa. From 2000 to 2009, prospecting licences held by Australian companies in Botswana alone increased from 14 to 260.

According to the report, Australian mining companies were responsible for multiple cases of negligence, unfair dismissal, violence and environmental law-breaking across Africa. It claims that since 2004 more than 380 people have died in mining accidents or in offsite skirmishes connected to Australian mining companies in 13 countries in Africa.

Among the most notorious incidents is the case of Anvil Mining in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2005 Anvil vehicles transported Congolese troops under the command of Colonel “Double-Bladed Knife” Ademar to the village of Kilwa, which had been taken the previous day by rebels.

Most villagers had already fled by the time Colonel Ademar’s troops arrived, and the rebels fled within hours. There were reports that Ademar ordered, “Kill everything that breathes.” It is known that 73 men, women and children were summarily murdered.

Following public outcry, Anvil issued a statement saying: “The DRC military requested access to Anvil’s air services and vehicles, to facilitate troop movements in response to the rebel activity. Anvil had no option but to agree to the request”.

Neither Anvil Mining nor any employee has been found guilty of any crime.

In comparison with Australia, African tax regulations are relatively flexible, while wages and working conditions, environmental protection, and occupational health and safety laws are weak. Mining companies attribute conflict to corrupt or brutal officials, or to local issues, rather than acknowledge the role of the mine in these conflicts.

Many mining companies are tempted to use their association with Australia and its friendly reputation to gain a competitive advantage while avoiding the ethical and operational standards that prevail within Australia.

Last year Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that the Australian government would actively promote the interests of the mining sector ahead of economic aid to Africa.

“Australia’s aid program has been reshaped in line with our belief that the best way to help countries grow their economies and improve the living standards of their people is to focus on prosperity…” she said. “Mining has made, and continues to make, a substantial contribution to economic development and poverty alleviation in Africa.”

Australian aid to Africa has been slashed since 2014. The mining sector is the only remaining means for Australian embassies to build relationships and promote their public profile in Africa. Even the remnants of the scholarship scheme named Australia Awards have been aligned to suit the mining sector.

Last year, at the Africa Down Under mining conference held in Perth, it was claimed that in Africa “ground discoveries made by Australian companies amount to $687 billion of value”, while investment was only 10 per cent of that amount. Clearly there is significant profit to be made mining in Africa.

While most mining companies may operate in accordance with national laws and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – the minimal standards apply – outrages such as the murder of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe undermine any promotional value Australia may seek to achieve.

In his funeral oration, Chief Cinani said: “There is no crisis which can take more than 10 years. A crisis should take place for quite a short time and then the authorities should resolve the problem. The King has said, ‘This must stop.’ Today we are here to say Bazooka has died with the key in his hand, so whoever would like to continue this must go and dig the key from his grave. He has gone with it. That simply means there will be no mining here.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2016 as "Fault lines".

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Phillip Walker is an aid worker who has spent 20 years living and working in Africa.

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