The dunes appear endless. Behind them lie rolling grassy hills, banana trees, sweet potato fields and thatched huts. There are horses, goats and dogs, but no roads, no towns, and the only constant sound is the crash of the breakers from the Indian Ocean.
This is Xolobeni, a remote village on the eastern shore of South Africa and the focus of a bitter dispute over a massive titanium mining project. The outcome will have far-reaching consequences for South Africa – redefining the place of the country’s most famous industry in a rapidly changing nation hit by weak economic growth and deep social problems – and also for the continent.
For activists, the story is simple: an exploitative international mining company is set on uprooting a community and destroying the local environment to reach precious ore. For supporters of the project, the opposite is true: much-needed investors have come to help South Africa exploit a key resource and develop an impoverished region.
The dispute has divided the approximately 10,000-member Amadiba community who live in and around Xolobeni. “Perhaps the saddest part of the whole story is the split in what was once a strong community,” said Judi Davis, a veteran local reporter who has covered the dispute since its beginnings almost a decade ago.
In recent months the dispute has gathered momentum. In March a prominent critic of the mining project – a local taxi firm boss known as Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe – was shot dead in front of his teenage son. The taxi trade in the area is notoriously violent, and some suggest a business dispute may have caused Rhadebe’s death.
Others link the killing to Rhadebe’s activism. Only hours before the murder, the 52-year-old had warned another activist, Nonhle Mbuthuma, of the existence of a hit list. He was the priority target, he said, but she was next.
Mbuthuma has continued campaigning, though now she is accompanied by an armed bodyguard paid for by an NGO, and moves between houses of sympathisers every night.
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