17 February 2016 at 11:35 am
Charges against three community activists from the Moroke village and surroundings near Burgersfort in Limpopo who were arrested in August last year have officially been withdrawn. After securing bail for the three activists with the help of local attorneys last year, lawyers from the Centre for Environmental Rights made representations to the Control Prosecutor of the Praktiseer Magistrate Court arguing that there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction in the matter as there is no evidence to substantiate the charges against the community activists. The prosecutor agreed and withdrew the charges.
Eric Makola, Tebogo Sekgobela and William Moela were arrested in August 2015 after a community gathering to discuss grievances against Chromex Mining company (Pty) Ltd (“Chromex”) and its operations in their community. At the time, community members were concerned that, amongst other things:
- the mining operations are too close to people’s homes and during blasting, ground trembling results in considerable wall cracks, and fly rock and dust intrusively enter their homes;
- the mine trucks cause an incredible amount of dust in the villages, polluting the air and making it difficult to breathe;
- the mining company has not consulted with the community as required, and disregarded the fact that the land has historically been used by the community for maize farming; and
- the mine’s compliance with its Social and Labour Plan. Community members are concerned that the mining company has not observed all conditions in its mining licence and environmental authorisation.
The charges that led to the arrests were laid by Chromex’s security personnel who told police that community members threw stones at them and damaged one of the company vehicles and injured one of their colleagues. However, the community activists deny this, and contend that, Chromex’s security shot and injured two community members with rubber bullets. The injured community members, who had been admitted to hospital, have medical records to prove the injuries they suffered at the hands of Chromex’s security personnel on that day.
Apart from the statements from security personnel there was no other evidence to support their allegations. There were no photos or damage assessments of the alleged car damage, and there was no proof of any injuries sustained by any security personnel. Statements from the security personnel contained a number of discrepancies. These are some of the reasons CER lawyers put forward to show that the version of events as described in Chromex’s security personnel’s statement is not reasonably probably true, and that the charges against the community activists should be withdrawn.
The withdrawal of the charges is a victory for the activists who no longer have criminal charges hanging over their heads. However, though they were out on bail, they had to put their lives on hold and endure six months of court appearances.
Using criminal proceedings to silence activists is a well-established strategy in South Africa and in other parts of the world. In this case, the facts suggest that unfounded charges were laid to silence activists from voicing their grievances against the mine, or possibly to cover up the fact that security personnel shot and injured community activists for protesting social and environmental injustice.
While we always encourage activists to take lawful protest action, it is also important to prepare for unlawful and retaliatory action by those being protested against. Firstly, activists must keep good records of protests through photographs and other media to make is easier to disprove false allegations. Secondly, to support bail applications upon arrest, activists must make sure that it is easy for the SAPS to confirm their residential address upon arrest.