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Along South Africa's East Coast, Locals Take On Mining Industry

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mining is a mainstay of South Africa's economy. It's also been a curse, claiming lives and spoiling the environment. An Australian mining company has been trying to get a license to dig an open pit mine on the country's remote east coast. The locals, or the Amadiba people, have been fighting against it for a decade. Sarah Birnbaum has the story of a traditional community willing to die to keep its land.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

SARAH BIRNBAUM, BYLINE: Bazooka Radebe campaigned fiercely to stop the Australian mining company MRC from mining on his people's land. In March, he was gunned down by men dressed as police officers. Thousands of people from across the country have made their way over dirt roads to the funeral on Radebe's homestead. Pallbearers weave through the crowd carrying his casket while members of his church sing funeral dirges in Xhosa.

Nonhle Mbthuma was in the anti-mining activist group, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, with Radebe. She looks tired and shaken. She says Radebe called her an hour before he died to tell her that his name was on top of a hit list and she was number two.

NONHLE MBTHUMA: When I speak to him he said, hey, guys, our struggle is bigger than we thought. Now, Nonhle, you need to watch your back.

BIRNBAUM: Violence against anti-mining activists in the Amadiba area has been ramping up. In 2003, headman Mandoda Ndovela was murdered after speaking out against the mine. In December, community members who opposed the mine were beaten with clubs and bush knives. Mbthuma says she and her community will die to protect the land.

MBTHUMA: It's our mother Earth to us. It's holding us. If we let the land go, that means we lose the identity, the roots, because where you don't have a land, you don't even know who you are.

BIRNBAUM: At stake is 14 miles of sand dunes on what's called the wild coast, a stunningly beautiful stretch along South Africa's Eastern Cape.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)

BIRNBAUM: The mining company MRC says underneath the sand is one of the world's largest deposits of titanium. The company has applied for mining rights from the government. The project will require digging a huge pit mine and building infrastructure like roads, pipelines, storage facilities and electricity pylons up and down this unspoiled area.

Now, there's the ocean, sand dunes and grassy hills with clusters of huts here and there. There are a few paved roads, no running water, no electricity. It's the tribal land of about 300 or so families. They say the mining development threatens to destroy their way of life and undermine their livelihood, which revolves around subsistence farming. Nonhle Mbthuma.

MBTHUMA: We use land for everything - for farming, livestock, buried people. Everything.

BIRNBAUM: She says the Amadiba have been defending this land against outside development for generations. In the 1960s, when the apartheid government tried to group the scattered homesteads here into villages, fence off the grazing land and arable plots and impose quotas on livestock, the community revolted in what's known in history books as the Pondo revolt. Mbthuma sees her fight against mining as a continuation of that anti-apartheid struggle.

MBTHUMA: My own grandfather, he was involved during the Pondo revolt. Now, I'm still following the steps of my forefathers.

BIRNBAUM: The CEO of the mining company, Mark Caruso, has refused NPR's requests for interviews, but he briefly appeared of South Africa's Talk Radio 702. He says the company is not involved at all in intimidation of activists or in the murder of Bazooka Radebe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK CARUSO: The company has continued to support non-confrontation. It has continued to act within the law and with restraint in relation to inciting any further violence.

BIRNBAUM: Caruso insists the majority of the community wants the mining because it will deliver over 600 jobs. The application for mineral rights is still pending, and the Department of Mineral Resources says it's not prepared to take a position yet. But protesters like Mbthuma say they'll keep fighting no matter what. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Birnbaum in Mdtaya, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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