Protecting Ancestral Land from the Pursuit of Profit – Xolobeni Community Stops Grant of Mining Right

In November 2018 the community of Umgungundlovu, which has called the Xolobeni area of the Eastern Cape in South Africa home since the early 1800’s, secured a critical legal victory to stop planned mining activities on its ancestral land.

Previously, it had been accepted that the landowners and communities only had to be consulted before a mining right is granted. The purpose was to inform them of the planned activities and the potential impacts. It wasn’t necessity to get their consent – the landowner and communities could object, but they couldn’t ultimately prevent the granting of a mining licence. Their only recourse was a claim for damages if there no agreement could be reached with the mining company.

Faced with the loss of access to their land and their way of life, the Umgungundlovu traditional community approached the court for an order declaring that a mining right can’t be granted over their ancestral land without their consent. They argued that the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act (IPILRA) required the free and informed consent of traditional communities before they could be deprived of their land.

The mining company (Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources) disagreed. It relied on the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MRPDA), which didn’t require “consent”, but only “consultation”. They argued that the MPRDA trumps the IPILRA, and that no person had a right to refuse their consent to mine.       

The South African High Court disagreed with the mining company, and held that a mining right couldn’t be granted over a community’s land unless the community had first granted their free and informed consent.

The court said that the question at the heart of the case was:

“Who gets to decide whether mining activities take place on this area – the community which has lived there for centuries, or the [mining company]?”

It was not disputed that the Umgungundlovu community was indeed a “community” and held informal rights to the land in terms of the IPILRA. What was in dispute was if the requirements of both the IPLRA and the MPRDA must be complied with in circumstances where land falls under the IPLRA.   

The court accepted that the IPLRA and MPRDA had different thresholds when it came to engaging with communities and landowners. The IPLRA needs “consent”, which equates to an agreement between the parties. In terms of international law consent needs to be “free, prior and informed”. The MPRDA, however, only needs “consultation”, which is only a process of consensus seeking. The aim of consultation isn’t to reach an agreement but only to involve the landowner and inform them of the possible interference with their property rights.

The court rejected the mining company’s argument that there was a conflict between the two acts. The IPLRA specifically regulates South African customary law, while the MPRDA regulates mining activities while being silent on customary law. The court applied the recent decision of the South African Constitutional Court in the Maledu case (which I discuss here), where it was held that the MPRDA and the IPLRA weren’t conflicting and must be interpreted and read harmoniously.

The purpose of the IPLRA is to protect traditional communities’ informal rights to land which were not previously protected under racially discriminatory laws. It gives traditional communities greater protection than the protection enjoyed by common law landowners. The greater protection is justified because a traditional community’s way of life is intrinsically linked to their ancestral land:

“… the communal land and the residential plots (‘umzi’) of each imzi [household] forms an inextricable and integral part of this communities way of life. … a residential plot represents far more than merely a place to live: it is a symbol of social maturity and social dignity. Each residential plot further serves as a critical conduit for the preservation of relations of inter-linkage and mutual dependence between the living and the dead and is critically important for the well being of each imzi.

… the proposed mining activities … will not only bring about a physical displacement from their homes, but will lead to an economic displacement of the community and bring about a complete destruction of their cultural way of life.”

The court accordingly held that the Minister of Mineral Resources did not have the legal power to grant a mining right over a community’s land that is protected by the IPLRA, without the community’s prior consent.

This judgement was hailed by Amnesty International as “a clear message that multinational mining companies cannot trample over people’s rights in the pursuit of profit”, but quickly condemned by the Minister of Mineral Resources for impeding the government’s ability to grant mining rights to companies.

The minister has indicated the intention to appeal the decision, so this won’t be the end of the Umgungundlovu community’s legal battle.  

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