On 12 November 2021, 24-year-old Thulani Mdluli and his three friends, all local fishers from the traditional fishing community of Nibela went fishing in the upper reaches of St Lucia. The Nibela community has lived on the Nibela peninsula for several hundred years, depending on fish from the lake for their food security.  However on this day, Thulani appeared to have paid for this practice with his life.   His three friends say that they were fishing when they heard shots fired. They fled into the bush in different directions and ran home.

It appeared that rangers had been in the area investigating an unrelated poaching incident that happened earlier in the week.

Thulani, however, never returned home. When the family went to the scene of the shooting all they could find was his plastic flip flops in the mud.  When they then went to the police station in Mtubatuba to report that he was missing they were informed by the police station commander that rangers working in Isimangaliso had phoned in a report of a shooting, but they claimed that they not investigated whether the person was wounded fatally, nor retrieve the body. On the 16th of November, Isimangaliso World Heritage Authority issued a statement to say that field rangers reported that they had fired shots at persons they assumed were poachers when one of the men – the statement calls him, without evidence, a ‘poacher’ – at the waters edge allegedly shot at the rangers. They then stated that “they observed blood in the water which made them suspect that one poacher (sic) had been shot”. They further stated that “he might have attempted to avoid arrest by jumping in the water”.  It appears that they did not try and find the wounded fisherman or the gun he allegedly used to fire at them. The three fishers that accompanied Mr Mdluli, has strongly denied that he was armed or fired shots and no gun has been found.

The rangers did, however, confiscate the two boats. The search for his body continues. Local fisher leader Mr Thomas Nkuna says the community are in a state of shock and fear for their lives. Mr Mdluli has a 3 month old baby and his partner and family wait at home anxiously for news.  His brother, Mpilozi Mlduli says Mr Mdluli is a fisher and they rely on him bringing fish home for food.

The traditional fisher community of Nibela is extremely concerned as last September 2020, Thulani’s brother, Celempilo Mdluli and two friends were also shot at by rangers whilst fishing. Celempilo died on the scene. The other fisher who was shot recovered from his wounds however this incident left the community fearing for their lives.

These shootings follow years of harassment by rangers from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the agency contracted to undertake law enforcement in the World Heritage Site. The community has repeatedly informed the authorities and requested meetings with the Fisheries Branch, Ezemvelo and Isimangaliso to address their concerns, as they were declared a small-sale fishing community and their fishing rights recognized by Minister Creecy in March 2020.  Following the killing of Celempilo last year, they requested the Legal Resources Centre to write to the Minister requesting a transparent investigation into this killing and that the DFFE meet with the conservation authorities.  To date the report into the investigation pertaining to Celemphilo’s death commissioned by the Minister has not been made available to the family or the community. The investigation into his death by the police has suffered several inexplicable delays and the police have claimed that evidence is missing. The community are extremely concerned that like Celempilo, there may be little justice for Thulani.   Thomas Nkuna says “we fear this pattern of shooting resulting in death and the tendency by the rangers to ignore the rights allocated to the fishers by the DFFE Fisheries Branch and to instead view all the fishers as ‘poachers’.  Over 500 households depend on the lake for their basic food security and very few have other livelihood options”.  The community met with the conservation authority last week and gave them 72 hours to find Thulani’s body or come and explain the rangers’ actions. They have had no response.

For more information please contact:

Thomas Nkuna 0822584910, Nibela SSF Cooperative

Jackie Sunde, Coastal Justice Network 0722627444

Lindani Ngubane, Masifundise Development Trust 0724740713.