A court has ordered Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. to stop exhuming and relocating dozens of historic graves at the site of its planned $1.6-billion platinum mine in South Africa.
The Vancouver-based company says it is complying with the interim order, but will fight it in a court hearing in late January. It says the court order hasn't affected construction at the site, where its first shaft has reached a depth of more than 120 metres underground.
The court order is the latest sign of tensions between Ivanhoe and some community members near the mining site in Limpopo province, about 280 kilometres northeast of Johannesburg.
The mine is expected to become the biggest new platinum mine in the world. The company's billionaire founder and executive chairman, Robert Friedland, has called it the world's lowest-cost and longest-life platinum mine.
Hundreds of the mine's opponents have held a series of protests against the project over the past two years, including a protest at the Canadian high commission in Pretoria. They have also attempted to launch challenges against the mine in the courts and at government departments and agencies.
Ivanhoe has identified 154 graves around its mining site, in an area where it plans to build infrastructure for the mine. About two weeks ago, it began exhuming and relocating the graves. It says it obtained permission from the families of each person buried in the graves.
Community members who oppose the mining project went to court to seek an urgent order to halt the exhumations.
They argue that Ivanhoe failed to consult the community properly, and they say the company used financial payments – known as "wake fees" – to manipulate the next of kin. The company denies this, saying that the "wake fees" of about $2,600 each are intended to compensate the families for the costs of traditional ceremonies and rituals at the reburials.
Last Monday, after the company had exhumed more than 50 graves, the High Court of South Africa issued an interim order, prohibiting the company from "destroying, damaging, altering, exhuming and removing" any graves or graveyards at the site.
The court also authorized the South African police to enforce the order with arrests if necessary.
Jeremy Michaels, a spokesman for Ivanhoe's subsidiary Ivanplats, which owns 64 per cent of the platinum project, said the company "was not advised" that the opponents were seeking the court order, and "therefore did not have an opportunity to present evidence before the court reached its interim decision."
He said the company will seek to overturn the interim order at a court hearing scheduled for Jan. 26. The company has received "all official authorizations required" for the grave relocations and has managed the process with "dignity, respect and sensitivity," he told The Globe and Mail.
The mine is currently employing 550 permanent and contract workers, and it will provide thousands of additional jobs in the future, the company says. It expects the first shaft to reach the platinum deposit in late 2017. Construction of a bigger second shaft is expected to begin next year.
The company has complained of violence by opponents of the mine, including incidents of arson, assault and illegal blockades. The opponents have their own complaints of violence. Police have fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters at the mine site, injuring some of them. Opponents have also alleged that they were threatened with the loss of pensions, welfare payments and farm fields if they refused to co-operate with the mine. The company denies any knowledge of such threats.
One community member who strongly criticized the company, Holly Maponya, was shot by an unknown assailant or assailants in April this year near his house. Police have said they are investigating the incident, and Ivanhoe says there is no evidence that the incident was connected to its development of the mine.