The eco-warriors of Pondoland


The eco-warriors of Pondoland

ANNELIESE BURGESS speaks to Malcolm Campbell, convenor of the Amadiba Crisis Committee's technical committee, about the Xolobeni community's latest battle to protect its land (after stopping dune mining and Shell's seismic surveys for oil). This time, they want the route of the N2 toll road to be changed so that it does not cut through the most environmentally sensitive part of their land — because they think the road might be a plan to sneak the 22km dune mine back onto the table.


MALCOLM Campbell is an architect, urban designer and development planner, and the deputy chair of the University of Cape Town council. His activism, which dates back to his student days in the 1970s, attracted him to the plight of the Amadiba people.

“I bring with me professional technical expertise, but also an understanding and appreciation of community struggles and what it takes to fight for what you believe in," he says.

“The Amadiba are very proud of their tradition of resistance.”


“In the sixties there was fierce resistance against initiatives by the state to interfere with their land rights. They resisted fiercely. The right to the land is something that is sacred to them. By the end of that struggle in the 1960s, more than 500 people were in detention. They see the current struggle as a continuation of that old tradition of standing up to outsiders who want to impose things on them that they believe will not benefit their communities. Their history is very important to this community. For example, when there were discussions about certain issues recently, the people 'climbed the mountain' to make the key decisions. Old customs are still part of the lifeblood here."

Xolobeni, on the Wild Coast, lies between the Mzamba and Mtentu rivers. It is home to the Amadiba clan of the AmaMpondo people and is as remote as it gets - at the end of almost impassable roads in the deepest heartland of the rural Eastern Cape. The Amadiba have ruled this territory for more than 300 years in terms of customary law and the roots of resistance to outsiders who want to impose their customs run deep.

To understand the latest struggle of the Amadiba against the construction of the N2 toll road across their territory, we have to go back to apartheid when they were one of the few communities in the old Transkei that retained their own leaders and chiefs and refused to accept those imposed on them by government.

Half a century later, the spirit of the Amadiba was once again called upon to fight a new enemy. In 2002, titanium-rich minerals were discovered on their land and the government issued a license to an Australian mining company to mine 9 million tonnes over a period of 22 years in open pit mines.

A large part of the community was opposed to these mining activities because of environmental reasons and the impact it would have on their way of life. To fight this mining threat, the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) was established. The committee aims to preserve the Amadiba's "understanding of life, community, indigenous belief systems, ecology, land and sustainable ways of life".

Community meeting.
Community meeting.

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First fight: dune mining

The first battle was to stop the mining from happening.  

The ACC and the department of minerals and energy went to court. It took years, but finally the government suspended the mining licence and later revoked it. The Amadiba's triumph was short-lived. Within four years, the mining company filed another application through a subsidiary, and the flames of resistance were ignited again.

There were deep, dangerous forces at play. Sikhosiphi “Bazooka" Rhadebe, the chairperson of the ACC, was assassinated outside his home by men posing as police. The suspicion remains that his killers were linked to the pro-mining lobby. Nonhle Mbuthuma, who stepped into Bazooka's shoes, has received numerous death threats.

In 2018, the Pretoria high court finally ruled that mining could take place only with the full and informed consent of the Xolobeni community. The minister, Gwede Mantashe, said he would appeal and the ACC invited him to a community meeting to hear its case, but the meeting ended in violence when riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters. Mantashe has never been back to Xolobeni but there is a strong feeling in the community that the attempts to mine its land are not over.

Community meeting.
Community meeting.

Detour fight: seismic surveys

The struggle over their land continues, with a detour. The ACC became one of the key opponents of a controversial decision by the department of mineral resources and energy to award oil company Shell exploration rights to conduct seismic surveys off the Wild Coast. They deployed their tried-and-tested method of combining activism, protest and legal action, leading to the high court setting aside the department's 2014 decision. This has stopped any exploration in the foreseeable future.

New frontier: the N2 toll road

The ACC is now focused on another threat: the routing of Sanral's proposed toll road. One reason is the suspicion that the mining threat is not over and that the road is about accessing that part of their land where the minerals are, but there are other reasons, too.

Campbell explains: “The alignment of the road is currently through a very environmentally sensitive part of the Wild Coast. It is a pristine area, a unique biome with a lot of potential for ecotourism, and contains the most arable land in that area. It should be a no-go area for this kind of development. The community is very protective over that environment.

“Our technical team has done extensive work that shows that the alignment could easily be changed. And that is what they are fighting for. Not to stop the road but to stop it from going through the most environmentally sensitive area.

“They want it to go to what they call ‘the middle' of their land, where the community would benefit more substantially and it would allow for other road linkages in an area of what are now impassable roads. There is also a growing township ‘in the middle', and with the road passing through it, it would help develop this town as a node on the route, which would benefit the area as a whole."

Tech team know-how

The technical team, of which he is the convenor, has brought together skills across various critical areas.

“I have development planning skills, and we have town and regional planners who understand spacial development frameworks and environmental policies that apply in these situations. We have a land governance expert and a legal team. And then, importantly, an economist who has done a cost-benefit analysis of the different routes and found many deficiencies in the kind of reports that served as a basis for approving this particular route.

“However, our road engineers are critical, and they have looked at the standards for building roads of this nature and applied them to the alternative route. They are confident that the alternative route can work according to Sanral's standards."

Risk of roads

Roads are never just roads. They can bring opportunities but also risks and unwanted impacts.

“Uncontrolled urban development tends to follow the introduction of roads in rural or peri-urban areas," says Campbell. “There are many examples of this in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Given Sanral's currently proposed route, this uncontrolled urban development would spill into environmentally sensitive areas. Secondly, making the environmentally sensitive areas more accessible would open up sand mining, which is already a problem elsewhere and poses a further threat to this precious land resource.

“There has been a high degree of intimidation of community members who support the crisis committee. They have had leaders assassinated and the current leadership is also under threat. They have to engage security to ensure their protection. It is very high-risk work, but the community will resist.

“And they are not faceless dark forces. They are known people. They have known political allegiances. They have known allegiances to the mining interests. So they are quite open and quite public about their opposition. And they make their threats quite openly, as well as in recorded meetings."

Political interests

Campbell says there have been extensive discussions with Sanral and other government infrastructure development entities. While there is an appreciation for the rational terms of the proposed route change, “the underlying sentiment is that there are political and economic considerations that benefit particular interest groups that are lying behind this".

Sanral, he says, has said it will not revisit its decision on the route because it is “a political decision and the horse has bolted".

I prod him on the political interests.

“Mantashe has made it very clear that as far as he's concerned, the freeway will continue along the alignment proposed by Sanral and that the mining interests will still be pursued. So there you have a strong position from a key person in government regarding what the expectation is from the political side regarding this route."

Campbell says their technical studies support the viability of the proposed changes to Sanral's alignment, as requested by the Amadiba. What our technical studies have shown is that the impact of changing the alignment adds an extra 12 - 15 minutes to the journey between East London and Durban. And in terms of distance, it is just 14km. So the overall impact is virtually negligible.

“The plan going forward is to continue engaging with authorities and government authorities, to continue putting pressure on Sanral to reconsider the alignment, and then, at a local level, to continue engaging the community and garnering their support for moving the road to ‘the middle'."

As simple as this battle might seem when rationally explained by someone like Campbell, he says it will not be easy without a “political change". But the struggle continues in Xolobeni.

“And given their determination and the pride in their history, one gets the sense that they are not going to give up the struggle very easily."

♦ VWB ♦

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