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Villager dies, two critically injured in mine clashes

…Acting Mining Minister reads riot act to mine over villagers concerns

…condemns police heavy-handedness

Bereng Mpaki

ONE person was left dead and two others were critically injured at Kao Diamond Mine after violent clashes broke out between police and villagers who were protesting against the alleged failure by the mine authorities to honour its promises to compensate and relocate them from the areas affected by mining operations.

Acting Minister of Mining, Tefo Mapesela, who attended the scene of the tragedy on Friday, condemned the heavy-handedness of the police which led to the loss of life. He also threatened to shut down the mine if the authorities did not take corrective measures to address the villagers’ concerns within 90 days.

Minister Mapesela addressing the meeting

The mine, which is located near the Sekeketeng village in the Butha-Buthe district, is jointly owned by South African company, Namakwa Diamonds with 75 percent shareholding and the government which holds the remaining 25 percent shares.

Mining operations commenced in 2010 and over the years, the mine has occasionally found itself in conflict in villagers who say the authorities have reneged on its promises to compensate them for the loss of their livelihoods.

The latest conflict on Thursday was sparked by the villagers’ anger at the mine’s failure to permanently relocate those who were affected by a storm which flooded several homes.

Unusually heavy rains fell in the area on Sunday evening and the mine subsequently intervened to assist affected villagers by evacuating them to temporary shelter on the mine premises and to the homes of other villagers that were safe from the flooding.

All hell broke loose on Thursday when the villagers realised that the relocations were only temporary and the mine had no immediate plans to permanently relocate them from their homes.

The villagers argued that returning to their homes would only expose them to future flooding which they believed to have been the result of the mining operations.

The impasse over the issue resulted in villagers blockading the road leading to the mine with large boulders in a desperate attempt to force the authorities to accede to their demands for permanent relocation.

Police who attended the scene of the conflict allegedly used tear gas and even shot at the protesting villagers in an effort to disburse them, resulting in the death of Terene Pitae (25) and critical injuries to two other villagers.

The injured were ferried to a hospital in the district.

In the aftermath of the violence, the Ministry of Mining convened an urgent meeting on Friday which was attended by the local community, mine management, government, civil society and police representatives.

Speaking at the meeting, a visibly angry acting Minister of Mining, Tefo Mapesela, attacked the mine authorities for what he described as the systematic undermining of the country’s laws which mandated the mine to address the community’s welfare issues.

“If the mine had addressed these issues, we would not be where we are today,” Mr Mapesela said, adding, “the mine is clearly in the wrong and I want you to go on and do what you have to do for the people”.

“It is not only here but all the other mines take Basotho to be cheap and it is unfortunate to see a Mosotho supporting the investor to oppress another Mosotho.

“We won’t allow the mine to kill our people. Due to the overhanging rocks that can roll down the mountainside into the villages, people’s lives are perpetually endangered if they remain in that place.

“We will close down this mine if the operator continues to violate Basotho. This is not a threat but a promise,” Mr Mapesela said, adding that diamonds were not more important than the lives of Basotho.

He also ordered the mine to relocate the affected villagers within three months, failing which the government would suspend mining operations.

Villagers who recounted the deadly Thursday events claimed that the police shot at them without any provocation. According to ‘Manalane Molefi, the demonstration was peaceful and a Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) representative was in the process of brokering talks between the villagers and the mine authorities when the police arrived.

“While the TRC was addressing us, heavily armed police arrived and asked us to remove the boulders from the road but we did not move. They proceeded to remove the boulders from the road and that was when the people got onto the road and blockaded it with their bodies.

“The police started throwing tear gas canisters at us and as we ran to avoid the choking fumes, the police started shooting at us,” Ms Molefi said.

Deputy Commissioner of Police, Paseka Mokete, disputed Ms Molefi’s version of events, saying the police only acted in self-defence after one of their number was stabbed with a knife by one of the villagers.

“We have been told that a police officer was stabbed in the arm. We will start investigations which will show us what really happened,” he said, adding that several vehicles at the road block were also vandalised by the villagers.

Mr Mapesela condemned the killing of Mr Pitae and accused the police of using excessive force to deal with the protestors.

“We will not protect police officers who persecute the community. This was a totally unnecessary shooting. I am going to ask the Commissioner to suspend the concerned police with immediate effect to make way for investigations.

“I want to see the perpetrators of this heinous crime appearing before the courts of law within three months. The police should also be adequately capacitated on proper riot management.”

The Chief Executive Officer of the mine, Mohale Ralikariki, promised they would do everything in their power to comply with the minister’s directive to relocate the villages. He further undertook to assist the family of the deceased as well the injured.

Last year in January, the police had to be called in to intervene in disputes between the community and the Kao and Liqhobong mines.

The Sunday Express’s  sister publication, the Lesotho Times carried a story where the Minister of Mining, Keketso Sello, had to intervene after the host community of Mohlanapeng in Thaba Tseka halted operations claiming they had not been informed that a licence had been issued for the prospecting of diamonds in their area.

TRC Director, Tsikoane Peshoane, called on the government to enforce compliance with the country’s laws particularly on issues of compensation and relocation in order to avoid conflict.

“The mine operator should have an environmental management plan that says what will be done when environmental issues like this (flooding) occurs during their operations.”

He also said the government should consider introducing community shareholding in the mining sector to ensure that the villagers’ interest were well taken care of.

“In a functional democratic dispensation, the government represents the interests of the people well but as we have seen in our case, our government is easily maneuvered by investors at the expense of the people,” he said.

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