NEWS ANALYSIS: Xolobeni will have to do battle again and again against titanium miners

The people of Xolobeni on the Wild Coast are likely to have to keep battling applications to mine its mineral sands Author: Dorine Reinstein

Source: Business Today

UNTIL Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu exercises her legislated ability to declare mining "no-go" areas, the people of Xolobeni on the Wild Coast are likely to have to keep battling applications to mine its mineral sands.

For more than a year, non-governmental organisations have been asking Ms Shabangu to make the declaration, made possible by the 2008 Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Act (MPRDA). Still, the minister's office last week could not say when, if ever, it would happen.

Mining company Transworld Energy & Mineral Resources' first application for a mining right for four "blocks" in the Xolobeni area was withdrawn by Ms Shabangu last year after it was vociferously opposed by traditional leaders and the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which pointed to the area's environmental importance as part of Southern Africa's second most species-rich floristic region.

In April, Transworld lodged a new application for just one of the blocks.

"We are still convinced we can show we can do it (mine at Xolobeni) responsibly," says Transworld director Andrew Lashbrooke.

"Xolobeni's biggest problem is that it is a very rich titanium deposit. There will always be someone after it. They will have to fight this again and again," says attorney Sarah Sephton.

South Africa is one of the world's major producers of titanium, used to produce strong, lightweight alloys for the aerospace, military, automotive, agri-food, medical and dental, jewellery and cellphone industries. It is resistant to corrosion and has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal.

The tussle over whether to allow mining at Xolobeni for this lucrative commodity is one that echoes across the world. Mining is inevitably finite (the estimated life of the four-block mine was 22 years), but the community's eco-tourism venture has a far longer possible lifespan.

"We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal. We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change course that number will grow very fast - by 2030, even two planets will not be enough," says World Wide Fund for Nature International director-general Jim Leape.

Transworld's application for the Kwanyana block is viewed by the Department of Mineral Resources as a completely new application.

This means that, among other requirements, the company - a wholly owned subsidiary of Australian Securities Exchange-listed Mineral Commodities - has to repeat the public consultation required by the MPRDA, says department spokeswoman Zingaphi Jakuja.

It faces a tough battle.

"Mining the Wild Coast is simply absurd. It can be likened to the slaughter of rhino for their horns: the destruction of endangered species for the short-term commercial profit of greedy foreigners," says AmaPondo King Justice Mpondombini Sigcau.

In 2007, the former Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (now the Department of Environmental Affairs) commissioned several specialist studies into the proposed Xolobeni venture, concluding the area "should not be utilised for almost any land management practice apart from conservation and game farming".

The Department of Environmental Affairs has not responded questions on whether it still holds this view.

The Xolobeni community is ready to do battle again. "Our reasons (for rejecting mining) are still the same. We wonder why the government has allowed this mining application. We will take it all the way to the courts," says committee spokeswoman Nonhle Mbuthuma.

In this, the community goes up against the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which is nowhere near to meeting its promise made two years ago to create 5-million new jobs by 2020. Mining is central to this plan - not entirely surprising in a country that has one of the world's richest mineral endowments. In 2010, American banking group Citigroup estimated South Africa's mineral reserves as the world's richest, worth $2500-billion.

"We need to locate the minerals sector at the heart of our National Development Strategy, as it is our strongest comparative advantage and our only natural resource sector that could be regarded as exceptional in global terms," says the ANC's mining policy discussion document. It is one of several such documents to be discussed at the end of this month and again at the party's Mangaung conference in December, where final decisions on the proposed policies will be made.

Meanwhile, Xolobeni observers, such as social worker John Clarke, say the government is proposing infrastructure in the area that points to an already-made decision to mine the mineral-rich dunes. Perhaps the most obvious of these are the N2 Wild Coast toll road and a dam on the Umzimvubu River.

"Aren't the dam and the mine and the road inextricably linked? One of the big questions has been, 'Where will the mine get its water?' ... If they build a dam, that's no longer an issue for them," says a commentator who declined to be identified.

Opponents of the N2 Wild Coast toll road point to its proximity to Xolobeni's mineral sands and argue it will cut off some of the region's important towns, including Bizana, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki, but provide the mine with easy access to Durban and East London.