'Don't tell the children'
The government should not be putting up barriers to stop us finding out about things that will affect our lives, writes Nonhle Mbuthuma.
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu recently cancelled the mining rights over our ancestral lands, which had been awarded by the former director-general of her department, Sandile Nogxina, in 2008 to an Australian mining company, MRC, and its BEE partner, Xolco.
We succeeded because we insisted on our right of freedom of expression through the media, and our right of access to information. If the secrecy bill had been law when our struggle started, in 2003, we would never have succeeded in persuading the minister to cancel the mining rights. If the secrecy bill becomes law now, the next struggle we face will become too much for us - the struggle to stop the N2 Wild Coast toll road.
We do not want the toll road in our area because it will make it easier for mining to come back in the future and bring with it more problems than it will solve.
The first barrier we had to overcome in our struggle against the mining was put in place by two brothers from the community, Zamile and Basheen Qunya.
The Australian mining company employed them to try to force the community to agree to the mining. They tried to prevent journalists from coming to hear our views and intimidated us to keep silent.
However, in 2006, with the help of the media, the Human Rights Commission, and our king and queen we broke through their barriers by claiming our constitutional rights to freedom of expression.
Today, any journalist is free to visit our community. When they come they find people who are not scared to speak out freely. We even help them to get the views of people who supported mining, even though the Qunya brothers never did that for us.
The next barrier was to get information about the mining company and its BEE partner after the mining company put in its application for mining rights in March 2007. Because of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, our social worker, John Clarke, was able to visit the office of the Department of Mineral Resources in Port Elizabeth and study the documents the mining company had submitted.
Then, after the environmental impact assessment report on the mining had been completed, in December 2007, we sent our social worker to the Department of Environment and Tourism in Pretoria to get a copy of its report on all its concerns and questions on the mining proposal. The report explained the damage the mining would cause to the environment and the loss of eco-tourism jobs.
We were even more shocked when we learned that someone in the Department of Environment and Tourism had failed to send the report to the Department of Mineral Resources before the deadline. If we had not asked for it, maybe minister Shabangu would never have received the report. Three years later, it is that same report she used to help her decide to cancel the mining rights, as we wanted her to do.
Now we face another struggle - for detailed information about the N2 Wild Coast toll road that has just been approved by the government without anyone knowing the exact route, or which homesteads, fields and grazing lands it will destroy. We do not know which graves of our ancestors will be disturbed, or what compensation will be paid, or how the problems it will bring will be managed. The SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) have not consulted us on these details, but the government now expects us to buy something hidden in a sack.
Nazir Alli, from Sanral, tells us the road is to address poverty in the Eastern Cape. If it is "bread for the poor", why does he not show us what is in the sack? We have the right to know. If the government will not tell us, we become suspicious that in the sack is not "bread for the poor" but "cake for the rich", which we will have to help bake by giving up our ancestral land so the road can be built.
[Government spokesman] Jimmy Manyi says that the government must have laws to keep information about plans for new roads secret to prevent rich people buying the land where the road will go. He says it is to make sure the government does not waste tax payers' money, which he says would happen if rich people know the exact route, because they would push up the price of land.
But he does not explain how that will prevent government officials who know the exact route from taking advantage themselves of the secret information to buy land cheaply and make a big profit.
Now, to stop the N2 toll road, we have to find money to pay lawyers to take the government to court.
But the government will have tax-payers' money to pay for lawyers to defend their decision. How can that be fair and just? How much longer do we have to walk for our freedom?
It is not good for the government to keep secrets from the people who elect them. Secrecy causes distrust, suspicion and conflict, not understanding and peace. Often, at night I cannot sleep because I don't know what is really happening with our government decision-makers.
I want to trust them but our experience in our long struggle against the Xolobeni mining rights has unfortunately taught us that officials from the Department of Mineral Resources were not honest and truthful in answering our questions. Instead, they tried to tell us what is good for us because they wanted the mining to go ahead.
Now, with the N2 toll road, we are still waiting for Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele to come and hear our concerns direct, as he promised to do in parliament in July 2009.
We, the Amadiba community of the Wild Coast, have succeeded in our struggles because we have insisted on our right to know. The government should not be putting barriers in our way but should take down the barriers already there. It should not be making laws to protect information, especially when there is so much secrecy and corruption in the government already.
It should be amending the Promotion of Access to Information Act to make it easier for rural people like ourselves, so we don't have to rely on lawyers and social workers to help us get information that the government should have made available from the start.
- Mbuthuma is a youth leader in the Sigidi community on the Pondoland Wild Coast. This is an edited version of her statement in support of the Right to Know Campaign