This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
Mark Caruso, the CEO of Australian mining company MRC, has filed defamation suits against activists and lawyers opposed to mining ventures.
Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC) and its CEO Mark Caruso are suing six environmental activists and attorneys, including social worker John Clarke (pictured above) and environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan, alleging the mining company and its CEO were defamed. Also being sued for defamation is Mzamo Dlamini, a spokesperson for the Amadiba Crisis Committee, an organisation formed in 2007 to stop mining of titanium in the Wild Coast area.
MRC has been involved in a long-running dispute with Pondoland community members over its plans to mine mineral sands at Xolobeni on the Wild Coast. Last year the Amadiba Crisis Committee lodged a high court application to have the Xolobeni Mining project on the Wild Coast ruled as unconstitutional. If successful, it will have far reaching implications for the mining industry in South Africa, as it will require companies to adhere to the international human rights benchmark of “prior, free and informed consent” of local landowners before any mining project can proceed.
Last year MRC announced its decision to disinvest from the Xolobeni Mining project and sell its shares to its BEE partner. It was originally granted a mining licence at Xolobeni in 2009, but this was revoked in 2011 because of unresolved environmental issues. Some environmental activists argued that MRC’s disinvestment was strategic, and will retain a crucial though low-key role in the mining project going forward. A new application to mine the area is currently with the Department of Minerals and Energy Affairs.
Also being sued for defamation are two attorneys at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), Tracey Davies and Christine Reddell, and activist Davine Cloete, who are accused of making defamatory statements about MRC’s subsidiary company Mineral Sands Resources (MSR) and its director Zamile Qunya during presentations at the University of Cape Town in January this year. This relates to comments during the presentation claiming poor environmental practices by the company’s Tormin mineral sands project on the West Coast.
All six are defending the summonses, claiming these are nothing more than SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
Cullinan, in his reply to the summons, says the defamation action constitutes an abuse of the court process, as “there is no reasonable prospect of a court finding that (Cullinan’s) statements constituted wrongful defamation…”. He defends his public statements as protected speech in that his comments were true or substantially true, a genuine expression of opinion, and in the public interest.
In papers before the Cape High Court, Caruso and MRC claim Clarke insinuated that the company was involved in the murder of Pondoland community activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was gunned down last year by unknown assailants. This claim of defamation was based on an interview Clarke gave the Daily Maverick.
“The intention of (Clarke) in making the statements as aforesaid was to convey the innuendo that (MRC) had been involved in the murder of Rhadebe and resorted to criminal conduct, including murder, as a means of silencing and pressurising opposition to its operations and, by so doing, facilitating its ongoing operations, including the acquisition of mining licences,” says Caruso’s summons. “The innuendo is wrongful and defamatory of (MRC) and was made with the intention of injuring (MRC) in its reputation.”
Clarke, in his reply, says he was quoted inaccurately in the article and did not insinuate that MRC was involved in the murder of Rhadebe. Caruso appears to have doubled down on Clarke, expanding the numbers of defamation claims against him from seven to 18, representing a total damages claim of R5 million. This was after Clarke filed his response to the summons issued by Caruso and MRC.
Dlamini is also accused of defamation after apparently claiming in a radio interview that the company was involved in the assassination of Rhadebe.
Clarke has been an avid campaigner against mining on the Wild Coast, and often gets his message across in unorthodox ways (see below).
He says he never insinuated that Caruso or MRC were behind the murder of Rhadebe, though says his life has been threatened by certain community members opposed to the work he is doing (Moneyweb is in possession of the name of the individual alleged to have threatened his life).
Caruso also claims Clarke defamed MRC in a Cape Talk radio show when he accused it of human rights abuses, and of the “rapacious exploitation” of the Tormin mineral sands project, a beach sands project 400km north of Cape Town in which Caruso is involved.
Clarke replies that other than the misquote in the Daily Maverick, all other comments he made in respect of Caruso and MRC were substantially true and were made in the public interest.
Dlamini’s defence at this stage is largely procedural, claiming Caruso and MRC did not properly serve him with a summons.
The summonses served on the activists and lawyers claim MRC’s reputation has been damaged by the alleged defamations and it has suffered financial damage as a result. Clarke denies any financial damage has been suffered by MRC as a consequence of what he has said, and that any damage incurred was self-inflicted.
Cullinan, a prominent environmental lawyer based in Cape Town, is also accused of defamation over an interview he gave on Cape Talk radio where he alleged MRC was engaged in a policy of buying off certain traditional leaders as part of a colonial-style divide and rule tactic. Cullinan also alleged that lists of supposed supporters of mining activity in the area contained forged names as well as dead people. Caruso argues that listeners are led to believe that MRC resorted to “criminal conduct, including fraud, to overcome opposition to its operations at Xolobeni (where the mineral sands operation is based)”, and that it bribed and corrupted third parties to support its mining operations. MRC and Caruso are each claiming a total of R1.5 million from Dlamini and Cullinan.