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Authors’ Corner episode 2: Interview with Mphuthumi Ntabeni
Interview first published by LitNet February 24 2023
I am also interested in subversion, in what impulses or circumstances may enable someone to subvert forces of power. I think that true love and connection between humans – or between humans and other species – may be sorely tested by forces of coercion and oppression, but also have the power to subvert them...
Of cobblers, colonialism, and choices
Essay first published by African February 1 2023
I've also learnt that monstrous systems are upheld not only by monsters but by kindly people, who are either frightened, ignorant or deluded about the system they are helping to sustain; that history is knitted from an entangled mesh of conflicting narratives...
In 1826, an Englishman called William Pitt arrived in Algoa Bay, South Africa. He followed his brother, who had been brought to these same shores six years earlier to strengthen the British colonial regime. Most settlers were poor and unemployed, induced to travel to the colony with misleading promises. On arrival, they were sent forth with a handful of farming implements, a rifle, and the belief that the land was theirs for the taking. They were shocked to discover that not only was the terrain a lot drier and wilder than the English fields they were used to, but it was occupied by amaXhosa clans whom the settlers were expected to displace and hold at bay. William gave up farming quite rapidly and opened a cobbler’s shop in Grahamstown (now Makanda). William was my great great great grandfather. A century and a half after his arrival, I was growing up in the surreal dystopia of the white suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1960s. Myriad racist laws governed our lives – some draconian, some petty – but all designed to entrench white dominance and deprive Black people of wealth, security, and dignity. The landscape was littered with “whites only” signs to keep Black people out of parks and other places deemed white, unless they were shepherding white children in which case they could enter the park but not sit on its benches. My family were against apartheid, and I knew that something was hideously wrong with the society in which I was living, but I did not connect it to my British antecedents at the time. I thought of them as a fundamentally decent lot who did well because of their ingenuity and hard work, not because they were white. We were told that the British abolished slavery and brought benefits like mission schools, railways, and cash crops in return for the land they acquired. We were made to believe it was the Boers – the Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans – who were the real villains. In 1976, I went to university. That year was a turning point in South Africa, as a protest by Soweto school children sparked nearly 20 years of civil unrest, repression, and police violence until apartheid ended in 1994. My mostly white fellow students and I joined candlelit vigils and solidarity marches. We learnt how Africa was divided up amongst the colonial powers like so many slices of cake, about African scholarship and art, and that civilisation and culture was not only a European thing or perhaps was not a European thing at all. We read Karl Marx, Franz Fanon, and Chinua Achebe. We learnt freedom songs and went to meetings where speakers shouted iAfrica mayibuye (“let Africa return”) and amandla ngawethu (“power is ours”). We tried to learn isiXhosa. In seminars and discussions, I also learnt that the British had not been decent after all – that the colonialists stole land and enslaved people, and that those exploitative relationships persist into modern times, perpetuating global inequality and keeping Africa in poverty. I realised that my ancestors were early progenitors of the toxic society in which I was living and, whether I supported apartheid or not, I benefited from it. I was white and privileged, the daughter of a director of a major construction firm. My father had grown up in modest circumstances, but when he returned from fighting for the Allied forces in World War II, he was given funding for a five-year degree in architecture. His fellow Black soldiers were given bicycles. As a white person, the choice was plain: if you did not actively oppose apartheid, you were complicit. And so, I worked for an anti-apartheid newspaper that was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Front. I ran media and printing workshops, handed out pamphlets, painted banners for political rallies. I marched for political detainees and striking workers and to protest police violence. As a result, I was arrested, teargassed, and questioned. Our offices were burnt and our homes raided. But still, any harassment I suffered was nothing compared to what Black activists were going through. Even political repression was governed by race. When the African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994 and apartheid ended, I naively believed that my discomfort about whiteness would also end. I believed in the ANC, had fought for Nelson Mandela’s release, and had upheld the party’s Freedom Charter as a vision of a free and just society. I took pride in our new constitution – one of the most progressive in the world – and hoped my children would grow up in a democracy that was not governed by race, where all would have housing, health care, equal education, and human rights. That said, I was not one of those whites who believed that the day the “whites only” signs came down, apartheid would be erased – I knew it had left a deep and bitter legacy – but I did not realise just how deep and bitter. My youngest child was born in the year Mandela was elected. They are now 28 years old and, despite some progress, still living in a fundamentally unequal society in which race is still a major predictor of prosperity. For instance, over 37% of Black people are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average income of Black people is a third that of their white counterparts. And public hospitals and schools, used predominantly by Black South Africans, are buckling under the strain of mismanagement and underfunding. There is no doubt that much can be laid at the door of corrupt ANC leaders who have siphoned public money and valued loyalty over competence – much like the apartheid government before them. But it is equally true that white business leaders and politicians entered into negotiations at the end of apartheid with an agenda to weaken the ANC’s social democratic policies so business could continue as usual. That their agenda has been so successful is depressing. In only blaming the ANC, as many white South Africans like to do, it is also easy to overlook just how much the post-apartheid government was set up to fail by powerful global interests seeking to entrench a neoliberal agenda – interests whose roots lie in colonialism and British imperialism. In recent years, I have acquainted myself more thoroughly with the British who colonised South Africa while researching a novel set in that time. My forebears left no diaries or letters, but I have read the words of many of their contemporaries. I have been moved by their courage, fortitude, and wry self-deprecation. And I have been appalled by their assumption of their right to appropriate land; by their belief in their superiority over anyone who has a different skin colour. I have learnt that there was collaboration with indigenous people as well as coercion; that a few, very few, who came to uphold the colonial project turned against it and supported indigenous people in their struggle for justice. I’ve also learnt that monstrous systems are upheld not only by monsters but by kindly people, who are either frightened, ignorant or deluded about the system they are helping to sustain; that history is knitted from an entangled mesh of conflicting narratives. But entangled or not, my reading confirmed that British colonialism cast a long shadow, setting in motion a system that would impoverish indigenous people and give rise to racist eugenics that would underpin apartheid. Colonialism promoted a system of wealth production predicated on environmental destruction and human exploitation, which still governs our world today. Fossil fuels and growth-driven economies are creating a hell-scape for current and future generations. There are days when I feel consumed by rage for my ancestors. Lambasting the dead is not helpful and holding people accountable for their ancestor’s actions in perpetuity is not feasible – if we did, the British might still be demanding reparations from Rome – but we can’t address the dangers that threaten our world today if we don’t understand their origins and how inequality is continually reproduced by historical relationships of power. The Global North needs to recalibrate its exploitative and extractive relationship with the Global South and repay some of what it has stolen. As an individual, I need to understand and acknowledge how I benefit from my ancestors’ actions and find ways to redress the balance.
Kris van der Bijl.heic

The historical roots of Landscape: Interview with Kris van der Bijl

Published by Africa in Dialogue February 3 2023

I believe that it’s valuable to understand the historical roots of this system, and to understand that it is not the presence of humans that threatens the planet, but an economic system which disproportionately benefits a small group while causing massive destruction...

siphiwe indlovu.heic
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu interviews Bridget Pitt

Published by Women Writers, Women Books, February 5 2023

Whether I am writing a story about a landscape, or taking action to protect it, it’s a way of honouring earth. Both are acts of love, I guess.

Fikile Ntshangase pic Rob Symons.heic
Just who is blackmailing who?

Essay first published by Daily Maverick 19 November 2020

These communities are not blackmailing the mining companies. They are protecting our fragile earth from yet more destruction, and they should be saluted as the heroes they are.

TWO  weeks ago, while chopping onions for her family’s supper in her Ophondweni home, 63-year-old Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down by unknown assailants.     A motive for her murder was not hard to find. As deputy chairperson of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo), Ntshangase was a leading figure in community efforts to fight the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine.      When she was killed, she became yet another martyr in the increasingly ruthless global fight to force rural communities to allow mining on their doorsteps. Ntshangase’s death has been widely publicised, provoking widespread protest and dismay. So far there have been no arrests.  Let us hope that progress is made more swiftly than in the case of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, an activist from the Xolobeni area on the Wild Coast, who was resisting titanium mining in his community.  He was shot dead in March 2016. Family members alleged that SAPS sabotaged the investigation by refusing to interview witnesses or collect evidence. Four years on, no progress has been made, and other Xolobeni activists face constant threats of violence.     Ntshangase’s death highlights again the environmental and social costs of coal mines, which I wrote about in a story published in Daily Maverick one year ago.  There is much complexity in this story, but the underlying narrative remains stark and sharply relevant at a time when environmental and social injustice threaten our very survival.  In response to Ntshangase’s death, the CEO of the Tendele Coal Mining, Jan du Preez, claimed that the mine has brought great benefits to the area, including 1,600 jobs, contracts, programmes to assist with studying and learnerships, creches and so on.      Among these benefits, according to Tendele’s community manager, Nathi Kunene, is training in basic agricultural principles. It is somewhat ironic to be teaching people how to farm while degrading the lands on which they do it.     It’s mind-boggling how much we pay. It’s close to blackmail.    According to Du Preez, the mine faces closure if new areas cannot be excavated. And, if the mine closes, “40,000 people will lose either a job, a contract or a training opportunity”. Du Preez claimed that the payouts to directly affected families in the Ophondweni and Emalahleni villages areas were, in some cases, 10 times more than the market value of their home; that the average payout was R750,000.     The company’s own records show that not all families were offered R750,000. According to documents seen by Mail & Guardian reporters, many could be offered much less, the lowest amount being only R10,870.   However, on the face of it, it may seem a generous offer, and for people living on the margins on hardscrabble traditional farms, R750,000 may be very tempting.      But that number becomes less compelling when you consider what is at stake. Tendele calculates the payout by evaluating the structures on the land – but not the land itself.  This is because, although most families have been living there for generations, none of them own the land. It is held by the Ingonyama Trust, supposedly for the benefit of the community.       The question of why the people who live on the land don’t own it takes us down the rabbit hole of land ownership in this country, with its tangled burrows of dispossession, of the trickery and coercion whereby colonialists wrestled the land from those who were living on it; of deals made to grant the Ingonyama Trust control over millions of acres; of deals still being made to enable mining companies to gouge out and render non-arable and uninhabitable many of those acres, and of who has and who will really benefit from those deals.     It is in the context of this troubled history that Du Preez’s allegations of “blackmail” should be considered. In a world governed by property rights, compensation for the structures alone may be legal, but can it be regarded as fair? And if so, is the market value a remotely relevant instrument?  How do you assess the value, for example, of a traditional hut (indlu yangenhla) built and rebuilt over centuries, where for generations a family has sustained contact with their ancestors, performed rituals that give meaning and purpose to their lives, found comfort from misfortune and celebrated joy… Is it really only worth the price of the mud, sticks and grass that constitute its housing?     When the people are relocated from their homes for the mine, they lose far more than the structures on the land for which they are compensated.      Their real wealth is in the land beneath their feet. And when they lose that, they lose the right to live on the land of their forefathers, they lose ancestral connections, they lose the springs that flow even in times of drought, the sweet summer grass, the trees which sheltered their goats from summer storms, the ground where their umbilical cords are buried, the view of the rolling hills that framed their childhoods, clean air and fertile soil.     Even assuming that R750,000, (or whatever they receive) is adequate compensation for this loss, the only people who receive a payout at all are those so-called “directly affected communities” who have to actually vacate their homes and lands for the mine.  But the mines are surrounded by thousands of homesteads whose residents are not offered compensation as they are not classed as “directly affected”. These are some of the ways in which the people who get no compensation are “not directly affected” (drawn from the articles cited, and interviews I have conducted with people in the area):       The walls of their homes crack and sometimes collapse because of the constant blasting, which also affects their mental health, as do the glaring spotlights. Work shifts run day and night and through the weekends;       The air is filled with coal dust, leading to headaches, lung disease, asthma and other respiratory illnesses;       Water scarcity: residents report that springs have been blocked by the mine; in the drought of 2016, according to Attorney Kirsten Youens, the mine sank boreholes into the dry river bed of the Imfolozi, without obtaining authorisation – thereby depleting critical groundwater sources;       Pollution of water sources: open-cast mines contaminate groundwater and pollute surface water through the processing of ore;       Their animals grow sick. The intestines of cows, which used to be a delicacy reserved for older men, are inedible because they are black with coal dust;       Animals have to be tethered to stop them wandering onto the huge dumps of fragmented rock, and falling and breaking limbs; and       The rainwater which many homesteads capture from their roofs and store in tanks has become unusable, as it is full of black grit – depriving households of a critical water source. I don’t know what representatives of Tendele told the community when they first came with the mine proposals some 15 years ago. I have been told by those who were there that many promises were made, but not many written down or signed.  I doubt the mine agents told communities about all the effects described above. I doubt Tendele told them that all the blessings that flow from the mine – the jobs and learnerships and so forth – would come to an end when the coal ran out in a decade, and the only way to secure them further was to agree to another huge portion of earth being hauled out.  More removals, more noise, more coal dust, less water, more sick animals.  And when that ran out, another mine would be needed… and another, and another… until perhaps all the 220km² for which Tendele has mining rights has been turned from fertile grazing lands into a toxic gravel pit hollowed out for its anthracite. Whatever was promised at the first meetings – when Tendele came to the community with the latest expansion plans in 2018 – people were a little wiser.   Many had not received the promised blessings and knew all too well the consequences of living next to a coal mine. Mcejo was formed and the community resolved to launch a court application to ensure that the existing mine complied with environmental regulations, and that further expansion was stopped.  But by then powerful interests in the community were heavily invested in the mine. Traditional leaders, politicians and local businessmen all had connections with lucrative contracts – and it is likely that most of these people lived far enough from the mine not to experience its negative impacts.  Our resolve is based on honouring a strong woman; an anchor of our community. As is the way of these things, those who benefit most from mining tend to be those whose daily lives are least impacted. I doubt that Du Preez and other managers are woken at night by blasting, or have to drink water contaminated by coal grit. And so, pressure was put on the activists, with increasing menace.  In April this year, there were two drive-by shootings, targeting Sabelo Dladla and Tholakele Mthetwa. Other Mcejo members faced repeated death threats and were told of a hit list in circulation.  Then, in October, Mam’Ntshangase paid the ultimate price. The mine created 1,600 jobs. But in the process it has destroyed many livelihoods. Situated on the border of the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Reserve, this area has rich tourist potential which could have been enhanced with investment in creative community-led projects, but the growing excavations  for the mine are rapidly destroying this possibility.  This, and the damage caused to the land, has made the community more dependent on these jobs. Now, to sustain those 1,600 jobs, the mine needs to obliterate many more homes and livelihoods, leaving a great swathe of destroyed land which is unlikely to recover any time soon – if ever. Which begs the question: just who is blackmailing who? While the mine is seriously compromising or destroying the livelihoods of many on its borders, these impacts are overshadowed by the even bigger threat of catastrophic climate change.  Not only are these communities suffering from the process of extracting the coal, but they are also beginning to suffer seriously from the consequences of burning it, as drought and floods induced by climate change ravage their area and many others beyond.   And by destroying topsoil and grasslands, the mine is turning land that functions as a carbon sink into a top carbon emitter. Du Preez expressed regret at Ntshangase’s death, but suggested that violence was inevitable as the mine was being “held to ransom” by 19 of the 145 families in two designated mining areas who had refused offers of compensation to relocate. Du Preez’s suggestion that it is the resistance of anti-mining activists that is causing violence and tension in the community is disingenuous.   This resistance would not be “causing violence” in the community if there was no mine to resist. But this mine is spoken of by its proponents as an inevitability, and has been presented to residents as such.  The question asked of them is not, do you want this mine? but this mine is coming whether you want it or not – how much are you willing to sacrifice to try to stop it? Perhaps in years gone by, coal mining could have been justified as a necessary evil. Now, with growing evidence of the devastation caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels, and with the rapidly growing capacity for renewables such as wind and solar to provide our country with safe, cheap and clean energy, coal mining is becoming increasingly indefensible. In 2019 I interviewed Sabelo Dladla, the son of a dedicated anti-mining activist who took up the struggle against Tendele after his father’s death. In April 2020, armed men stormed Sabelo’s homestead and raked it with gunfire. He had to go into hiding and subsequently withdrew his name as the leading applicant in the case against Tendele.  I don’t know what finally made him withdraw, but I do know that not only had he faced bullets himself, he’d grown up watching his family live in terror of these attacks when they were directed at his father. Bullying and intimidating communities into accepting the coal mine is not the same as getting community assent. No one should have to choose between staying alive and defending their right to raise a family on ancestral land in a safe, clean, unpolluted environment.  These communities are not blackmailing the mining companies. They are protecting our fragile earth from yet more destruction, and they should be saluted as the heroes they are.  But far from coming to their support, the South African government continues to promote fossil fuels, grant mining rights without consulting those affected, promote the interests of mining companies over communities and drag their feet on investigating threats and acts of violence. In the words of Medical Nziba, “This won’t stop us from continuing with our struggle to fight against mining on our land.  “Our resolve is based on honouring a strong woman; an anchor of our community.”  Brave words indeed.  Let’s hope that in this instance at least, their struggle will be rewarded and justice will be found for Mam’Ntshangase. DM

Sicelo Mbatha
If you contaminate our river, you contaminate our souls
Interview with Sicelo Mbatha

First published by Daily Maverick 9 February 2022

We saw the river as a living entity...We knew from the elders in the village that the rivers are sacred, and you must not contaminate them....The river was our mother, and just as you would never harm your mother, so we were careful never to harm the river.

On 24 December 2021, a coal slurry dam at the Zululand Anthracite Colliery collapsed, releasing at least 1.5 million litres of toxic waste into the Umvalo River. According to the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, coal mine slurries are highly acidic and contain toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, lead and manganese. Listen to this article 0:00 / 11:30 BeyondWords The waste was carried from the Umvalo River into the Black Mfolozi River, which flows from its source near Vryheid through many rural communities, and through one of South Africa’s last remaining pristine wilderness areas, the Mfolozi section of the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park. The river sustains a living ecosystem which provides water and food to thousands of residents, livestock, and a multitude of wild animal and plant species. But it also has a more intangible but deeply significant presence in the lives of the communities it flows through. To gain some insight into this, I interviewed Sicelo Mbatha, a spiritual wilderness guide, who grew up in the nearby Hlabisa district, and who leads wilderness trails along the Mfolozi. Bridget Pitt: How did you feel when you heard about what happened? Sicelo Mbatha: I felt very bad. These rural communities are always the victims. Even where there are taps, there is no running water, the pipe burst long ago, nobody fixed it. If their water is poisoned, what must they drink? What must their animals drink? These mines are owned by people who don’t come from here, but they contaminate our rivers, and perhaps they don’t care because they don’t belong here. It is all about exploiting because you take, take, without even considering that the river is giving life to people who are living nearby. BP: You grew up in the rural community of Hlabisa, close to the Black Mfolozi. Can you tell us what the rivers meant to your community? SM: We saw the river as a living entity. It was not just water, something that you can freely destroy or contaminate. My father always said the river carries the life-giving energy of a woman: fish live in water, many insects, water birds come to drink and feed on the insects… it provides life to all these things as well as to humans. It has this energy of generosity, of taking care of one another, of giving life. We knew from the elders in the village that the rivers are sacred, and you must not contaminate them. You can swim in them, but you must not pee or defecate in the water, you must go 100m away… There was no cholera or bilharzia because we observed these practices. The river was our mother, and just as you would never harm your mother, so we were careful never to harm the river. The elders used to say, if you see this tree hanging over the river, don’t cut it because the roots are helping to clean the water… there was a lot of indigenous wisdom about how to care for the rivers. BP: In your memoir you describe a ritual you went through after your father died, how part of the ritual involved taking your mother down to the river for a symbolic cleansing. Do the rivers also feature in the spiritual life of these communities? SM: Yes, rivers are very important to the spiritual life of our communities. In our culture the man is the head of the family, and the woman is the heart of the family, so when the head of the family dies, there is a lot of sadness within the heart of the family. After the funeral, women will take the widow to the river to wash off the tears, so that she can enter the mourning stage with a clean heart, so that she can dwell in the room of sorrow for the one who has passed away. Later, we perform the ihlambo ceremony, a very important ritual to help the one who has passed away into the realm of the ancestors, and again the widow is cleansed in the river of her mourning and her mourning clothes are burnt. These rituals are still very much alive, but they need to be performed in flowing, clean water, not water contaminated by poisons or pesticides… there are a lot of crucial practices that may be uprooted by mines coming into rural areas and polluting rivers. Practices that help bring us together, help us cope with hardships. When you uproot their practices, you destroy the soul of a community. The river is also critical for the spiritual lives of the izangoma. When they want to connect with their ancestors, where do they go? They go to the river; they get into the deepest lungs of the water, to connect with the divine spirit, and they come back with something to symbolise their journey… so they use rivers to communicate with ancestral spirits or with the divine spirits living in the water. BP: You first spent time on the banks of the Black Mfolozi with your father, who was working in the Mfolozi Reserve at the time. Can you tell us about some of your memories of the river? What did it mean to you? SM: I have so many memories of that time… I remember seeing a flock of great white egrets flying above the river, how they were reflected in the still water, so that when I looked at my own reflection it was as if I was mingling with the birds. In those days the water was so clean you could just drink straight from the river. I remember once after drinking, I saw elephants drinking upstream. I realised that the elephants and I were drinking from the same water. I felt such connection with them… it was on the banks of this river that I understood my true calling to protect nature and to awaken others to its power and beauty. Just as the river gives life to us humans, it sustains the life of the animals. I remember the many tracks of the animals who had come down to drink, their patterns in the sand. My father knew them all. Rivers are truly the lifeblood of all creatures. When I drank those pure waters of the Black Mfolozi straight from the river, I imagined my children and grandchildren would be able to do the same. But even before this latest spill, the rivers were too contaminated by toxins from the mines and pesticides to drink without purification. BP: The mine owners and politicians say that the destruction caused by the mines to these communities is compensated for by the wealth they bring. Do you agree with this? SM: Where is that wealth? There is no wealth. It brings wealth to the politicians and mine owners, not to the people. And even some of these coal companies are facing bankruptcy. Everything is falling apart in these communities, and we cannot run away from that. If you need the police to attend to a problem in the village, they will say they have no vehicles; you call an ambulance at eight o’clock and it will come at half past two, there are no ambulances… coal mining brings more tears than wealth. If you drive from Imfolozi to Mtubatuba, through the mine-affected communities, you can smell the sadness… people are getting sick, their houses are cracking, the dust is getting to their lungs, the livestock are sick, their water is black with coal dust, you just smell the sadness. So I don’t believe in this wealth, it brings more poverty and desperation. BP: The collapse of the slurry dam was caused partially by recent heavy rains. This is one of many extreme weather events that are likely to occur because of climate change, brought on by burning the same fossil fuels that were being mined at the Zululand Anthracite Colliery. Can you comment on this? SB: What happened is like a window – it gives us a clear picture of what we are doing to the world. All the communities surrounded by mines have these problems, here and globally… in the Amazon rainforest, in the Congo, in India, in Burkina Faso. These problems are the daily bread of communities around the mines. And climate change is bringing even more destruction to our lives – the lightning is becoming more aggressive, people are losing homes and lives from heavy winds and flooding. There are many signs of climate change, warning us, but we are not considering them. I remember even some years ago, my father would say: “I am worried that the yellow-billed kite stays longer now – why is it so confused? Why are there no more Piet-my-vrous in summer? They come so late now. Why are there so few water insects at the river for the birds to eat?” My father could not read or write but he could tell that there was something wrong. Pollution and climate change are putting pressure on our communities and creating poverty. Out of frustration people are striking in the streets and boycotting… But as long as we humans keep mining and burning fossil fuels such as coal, things will only get worse. BP: Recently, Minister Gwede Mantashe suggested that those opposing new gas explorations are the new colonialists trying to deprive an African country of its wealth. What is your view of this suggestion? SM: This makes me angry, because he is painting a wrong image. As I said, I was raised by the elders to respect the rivers and nature… it was part of our tradition and culture to conserve all these sacred places long before the colonialists came. It was the colonialists who brought these practices that destroy the Earth. BP: In many countries, indigenous people have won court cases giving rivers the same rights as people – for example, last year the Magpie River in Canada was granted the right to flow, the right to be safe from pollution, and the right to sue. Do you think it might be valuable to give a river such as the Black Mfolozi similar rights? SM: Yes, it would be good. Many indigenous peoples here and in other continents will tell you that a river is a living thing, that when we look at the river we are looking at a live entity, as we are looking at a person… I myself was raised to recognise the river as a living entity. I don’t know why these rights were not given long ago. It would be good to fight for it, although I can see a mountain to climb because our leaders are not into conservation, they want to serve their own interests. But better to try to do it. BP: Our government is tasked with regulating mining activity to limit or prevent disasters such as this. What is your message to our leaders regarding the conservation of rivers and the environment? SM: I would say that it is very painful that their main focus is not saving Earth, they are not trying hard. The time is now, to protect wild places such as the Mfolozi Park, but also to protect the nature that supports communities. If they fail nature, they are failing the people, because nature is protecting people. You cannot protect the rights of people without protecting nature. We are like feathers on a bird… the feathers cannot live without the bird to sustain them. The environment can survive without us, but we cannot live one day without it. Two years ago, climate change scientists were warning us that we only have 10 years left to take action, otherwise everything will be in dire straits. There are so many warning signs that we are in serious trouble. But I hope that this coal spill will focus people’s minds and help to bring change. OBP/DM Sicelo Mbatha recently released a memoir and philosophical reflection on a life spent in intimate association with the wilderness and nature in this area. The memoir, co-authored with Bridget Pitt, is titled Black Lion: Alive in the Wilderness and is published by Jonathan Ball. See the Daily Maverick review here.

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