Venda, in Limpopo Province, South Africa is rich in both biodiversity and the colourful cultural traditions of the VhaVenda people. The communities here understand their land through a philosophy called Mupo – meaning all natural creation. Mupo refers to a great order of things, of which human beings are just one small part.
“Minerals and metals are the heart of the Earth. They are there for a reason. If we remove the minerals and materials like coal or gold, it is like removing a person’s heart. Minerals and metals are the heart of the Earth. They are the Earth, especially in our Zwifho, our sacred sites, they will die if minerals or metals are removed. Their life force will be drained. If we do this we will kill Mupo, our Mother Earth.”
Dzomo la Mupo (Voice of the Earth), custodians of the network of sacred sites in Venda
Their territory is peppered with sacred natural sites (Zwifho in local language), watched over by custodians called Makhadzi. These women – known fondly as the “rainmakers” of South Africa due to their cultural rituals to invite rain to the area – carry out a number of traditional practices in these sacred sites. For the VhaVenda, practices such as these maintain the health and integrity of their local ecosystems and of the wider community.
Today, the traditions and territory of the Makhadzi are under increasing threat as mining and development projects encroach in on the area. In 2012 Coal of Africa (CoAL), an Australian mining company, proposed the Makhado Coking Coal Project in the region. For almost years now, the Venda people and their neighbours have been fighting against it.
Of perhaps greatest concern to the communities in Venda, is the imminent allocation of water rights to Coal of Africa, for establishing the open coking coal mine that will eventually stretch across nearly 1,000 km2 of the delicate Soutpansberg ecosystem and across 60km of the Nzhelele river valley. If approved, this fertile breadbasket will become an industrial wasteland, destroying job opportunities and livelihoods. The mine will not only pollute the existing scarce water, but also use up the bulk of the groundwater in the area, this depriving rural communities of their most basic human needs.
Yes to Life, No to Mining – Their Story of Resistance
Mines in South Africa are required to undertake public consultation meetings and prove “consent” from local communities before mining licenses can be approved. The VhaVenda people are determined that such rights won’t be secured.
Community organisation Dzomo la Mupo (Voice of the Earth) and national partner The Mupo Foundation are building a network of allies locally, nationally and globally, whilst carrying out a number of local awareness raising dialogues and training. This includes the provision of paralegal trainings as well as networking with other communities who have been affected by mining. The aim is to empower communities to feel confident to say NO to the mine and to be better able to take responsibility for protecting and recuperating the rivers and forests of the area.
Aware of divide and rule tactics deployed by the mining corporations to undermine the structure and cohesiveness of the community, The Mupo Foundation are working to strengthen the resolve of the women-led community group Dzomo la Mupo. National networking meetings have been crucial in equipping the women – many of whom are traditional Makhadzi, or “rainmakers” – with the information they need to be able to refute claims by Coal of Africa and to educate the communities about the true effects and true cost of mining.
Going hand in hand with the increasing threats of coal mining in this sensitive ecosystem, is the undermining of the role of the Makhadzis. The women, revered as leaders, are not only responsible for sacred natural sites but also for seed, and the provision of local indigenous food varieties. Threats to their land and their ability to practice their traditions challenge their within their communities, eroding the traditional structure of VhaVenda culture.
Under the South African Constitution, all South African citizens have the right to enjoy and practice their culture and religion and associate freely without discrimination ( Sections 9, 30 and 31); the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing and to have the environment protected (Section 24); and the right to information (Section 32). The people of Venda will ensure that these rights are upheld in their bid to protect their sacred territory, food and water for the generations to come.
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