Summary: Sinegugu Zukulu fights environmental crimes by big mining and construction companies through litigating, documenting, and raising awareness. He is the Programmes Manager for Sustaining the Wild Coast, an organisation that works to amplify the voice of indigenous communities in Eastern Mpondoland and to protect that environment from destruction. He spends half of his time not making money but volunteering for community development work. In 2006, Zukulu narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by supporters of the mining companies he opposed. In spite of this risk, Zukulu maintains he will not be silenced and believes his cause is more powerful and just than the desire for profit.
Profile: Sinegugu Zukulu grew up in the Amadiba coastal community, a traditional African society “where people looked after one another”. His love for the environment and his community started when he was young. “When I started what I am doing,” remembers Zukulu, “I did not call it activism. I did not call it environmental work, either. I developed a love for the environment at age 6 to 7. I would even help others to explain what our teacher was saying at school in geography lessons. I would spend the entire afternoon helping other learners.”
Zukulu believes that his upbringing—which was based on ubuntu, where people care for each other and share the little that they have—is what shaped his perception about the world. He is convinced that with his education and experience, it is his duty to contribute to the development of his people for the collective good:
“Since I am one of the people in the community who are educated, the responsibility is on me to play a role and be able to help my community because of the knowledge I have. I feel every member of the community must be able to find a way to make life better for everyone.”
Zukulu’s environmental activism began to take shape in 1996 when, as a teacher in Durban, he volunteered with a group of environmentalists building conservancies in South African communities. A geographer by training with a background in environmental law, Zukulu then joined a group that was fighting for justice against arbitrary development programmes sponsored by the government. This was a time after independence, when the government’s ambitious economic development programs in communal lands often did not consider the human rights of indigenous communities and the importance of their environment, their livelihood, and their spirituality.
Zukulu comments on his calling: “When you have an advantage that people don't have, it is your responsibility to help. I felt very strongly that the human rights of these people were being abused. People did not know that they could use the media. They did not know that there are human rights lawyers. They did not know that there are pro bono lawyers. I had this knowledge. I had the internet. They only knew the traditional way. That was the only way I could help the community that had brought me up. This is how I started. My first step was to find journalists who could come and interview the people. The next step was to film a documentary that could help the government to understand these concerns and expose the threat on indigenous population. I could use my expertise and networks to ensure that the voice of these voiceless people in my community is heard.”
In 2006, Zukulu joined Sustaining the Wild Coast, an organisation that works with indigenous communities to promote environmental sustainability. The following year, he became a board member, and currently he is vice-chairperson. Zukulu talks about his early experiences with the organization: “We first assisted the community to challenge the construction of the N2 highway because it passed through a diverse critical community and the route used did not pass through major towns. The road passes through a biodiversity hotspot. I went to high court to challenge the government decision in 2012.”
Though Zukulu and his colleagues lost the case, they are still challenging the decision, convinced that the road should go inland, where less damage would be caused on the environment.
Challenging engineering companies involved in the construction of the N2 highway, Zukulu says, “They are going to make a lot of money if they build the road in coastal land, but the environmental effects will be high. All that money comes from the treasury. It is the taxpayers’ money. They stand to make a lot of money at the expense of the environment. The route they have chosen will cause a lot of damage to the environment. We are saying the road must go where it must target more people and where it is cheaper.”
Recently, Zukulu challenged the minister’s decision to grant Shell, a mining giant and conglomerate accused of polluting communities where it operates, permission to explore for oil and gas without consulting the coastal communities. In this matter he was joined by many other applicants, members of coastal communities, and various NGOs, such All Rise, Greenpeace, and Natural Justice. The court decided in his favor and blocked Shell’s right to conduct the exploration.
Zukulu believes that local people must play a critical role on development issues that affect them and the environment they depend on:
“The ocean is a source of livelihood. The ocean is used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. If we allow that [oil and gas exploration], we will end up having oceans polluted as they did in Ogoniland in Nigeria. By operating without consulting the indigenous communities, Shell had breached the constitution.”
Zukulu also mentors young people on the importance of their land and the environment. He shows them how to make films on issues that affect the community and then to discuss these issues in order to come up with appropriate interventions.
Zukulu’s vocal criticism of mining and construction companies did not come without a price. He nearly paid with his own life when he escaped an assassination attempt: “In 2006, when I brought journalists to do media exposure action against the guys who wanted to do the mining at Xolobeni, they hired a local hit man to kill me. Fortunately, this guy shared his plan with a relative of mine, unknowingly that he was a relative. I received a call from the tax boss (my relative) that his driver was given R30 000 to kill me. He asked what I had done.
“I don't know how many times they have tried to kill me. But I know that my life is at risk. But my firm belief is that if I know what I know, like what is happening because of Shell’s activities in Ogoniland where people cannot farm anymore, and keep quiet, it is a sin,” said Zukulu.
In spite of this apparent threat to his life, Sinegugu Zukulu has a deep conviction that he has a duty to serve humanity, and to be silent would be treacherous and unethical. He spends half his time volunteering: “I can be employed full time, any month, anytime. But I want to use that 50% for what I like most, serving my community.
“It is better to die fighting a good cause. Ultimately we are all going to die. If you keep quiet in that situation, that person can go to hell. The world will know there are few people who stood for a good cause. I know that I can be persecuted, but I stand for justice. I know that Shell stands for profit. I know that my cause is more powerful and it's not selfish. It's about future generations. If I die standing for these good ideas, so be it.”