The open cast coal mine in Somkhele has been operating since 2007 in the uMkhanyakude District (one of the 11 districts of the KwaZulu-Natal Province). This district is known for its lack of hydraulic resources and its poor delivery services of water and sanitation. This situation is worse in the Mtubatuba area because the Somkhele mine uses underground water to wash the coal, increasing the area’s water scarcity. The Somkhele open cast coal mine is only 10 kilometers upstream from Mtubatuba on the Mfolozi river as well as the proposed Fuleni mine (see case on the EJAtlas) opposed by locals. The mine operated without a water use license until August 2014. It was therefore violating national mining and water use laws during its first 8 years. Numerous communities of the uMkhanyakude District suffer water shortages, whereas the Department of Water Affairs removed five water tankers by the beginning of 2016 with no explanation. Early in 2016, the kwaMsani township was left without water for weeks. Residents had to either travel more than 2 kilometers to collect water from a communal water tap or to buy it from private dealers, including smugglers selling illegal water from the dry Mfolozi river.
In the drought-stricken communities, women are especially impacted because they are the ones whose social role is to ensure that the families have sufficient potable water. Since water is scarce, they have to travel further distances to find water sources, disrupting their days and leaving less time for other activities. With the support of WoMin, a Women’s Water Assembly was organized in August 2016 in Embonambi. Women from Somkhele and Fuleni reported the water scarcity and pollution that threatened their families’ health, their cattle, and farming productivity. The gathering was envisioned as a space to share experiences and to build alliances and solidarity between the communities carrying the burden of coal extractivism.
The local inhabitants demand the closure of the mine, whose life expectancy is at least 15 years. By June 2016, the South African Human Rights Commission held several hearings denouncing many human rights abuses and environmental injustices on behalf of Tendele’s mine. In November 2016, the Mpukunyoni Community Property Association blocked access to the coal mine with trucks. By December 13th, the court order forbade the association from interfering with the mine’s operations until January 25th, 2017. Regional and national networks continue to support local efforts and mobilization.
On November 20th, 2018, the Pietermaritzburg high court dismissed the application submitted by Global Environment Trust to halt operations in Somkhele .
On October 22, 2020, four hitmen shot and killed 63 year old grandmother Fikile Ntshangase in front of her young grandson in her home in Ophondweni, who had already narrowly survived a previous assassination attempt on October 15 against various community leaders still under threat. Ntshangase was the Vice-Chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). It is suspected that the killing was in retaliation for her refusal to sign an agreement with Tendele to cease MCEJO´s court challenges against Somkhele. These court challenges were for a review of Tendele´s new mining rights to expand 222 square kilometres in Mpukunyoni, due for hearing at the high court in March 2021 . At the time, Tendele was pressuring 145 families to give up their ancestral land for the expansion, subjecting them to months of violent intimidation including death threats and open fire on one family´s home. Tendele, however, alleges that the 19 households agreeing to relocate were asking for too much monetary compensation for leaving the land, with president Du Preez calling the R750,000 average payouts ¨ransom¨and ¨close to blackmail¨ . Days before her assassination, Ntshangase had intended to write an affidavit exposing sub-committee members bribing her with R350,000 to sign the agreement. Police have opened a murder case investigating the incident, which has yet to be resolved .