Formation Flight in Support of Xolobeni Sands

Jul 20, 2008

Mission: Formation Flight in Support of Xolobeni Sands
Date: 20 July 2008
Requesting organisation: Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC)
Location: Xolobei Sands area on the Wild Coast
Pilots: Barry de Groot, Kim Robertson, Paul Dutton, Bill Yeo and William O’Driscoll

Scratching with the chickens or soaring with the eagles, by John Clarke
Participants in the Beach Walk/March


It was Bateleurs pilot Barry de Groot who offered to co-ordinate our Formation Flight over the Xolobei Sands area on the Wild Coast, in solidarity with the community and the NGO Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC) who were protesting against the proposed mining of the area.  The flight comprised three Bateleurs aircraft with four Bateleurs pilots – Barry de Groot, Kim Robertson, Paul Dutton and Bill Yeo, plus a guest pilot who has since become a member – William O’Driscoll.  Here is Barry’s story of the flight.

“My reward for having to remove myself from a warm cosy bed at 05h00 on a Sunday morning was to witness a magnificent sunrise in front of my hangar, bathing my pristine aeroplane in a warm orange glow once the hangar doors were opened.

Our mission was to have four light aeroplanes fly in formation to show solidarity with walkers who were walking from the Wild Coast casino along the beach to the area known as the Red Sands. The purpose of the walk was to protest the proposed mining of these sand dunes of their mineral content by an Australian mining company.

The four aircraft are all based at different airfields so it was arranged that we would all rendevouz at Margate Airfield at 08h30.  The four pilots – Paul Dutton with another Bateleurs pilot, Bill Yeo, as his passenger, Kim Robertson, William O’Driscoll (a guest pilot on the day) and I all touched down at Margate within ten minutes of each other. We were very fortunate to have William, an experienced formation flier, with us on the day and he immediately set about briefing us on the finer points of formation flying, with emphasis on the safety aspect. So confident were we after the briefing that we even did a formation takeoff and set course for the Wild Coast casino.

Ten minutes after takeoff and about five kilometers south of the Casino we met up with the walkers along the beach, all 1000 plus of them. The enthusiasm for this noble cause was very gratifying to see from the air, and we were told that the numbers would swell even further as locals living in the area joined the ranks along the route.  We did several passes over the walkers in a diamond formation, with Paul in the lead in his bright yellow Piper Cub, and then returned to Margate to a very welcome hearty English breakfast.

At 11h30 we again took to the sky in formation, but this time Kim in his immaculate Cessna 182 took the lead role, with Paul bringing up the rear. The brief was to join with the walkers who by now would have reached the area to be mined, and then do several low passes over the group gathered at the estuary of the Mnyameni river. It was a wonderful sight to see such a large gathering of people on the beach with their banners.

After several passes we broke formation and each aeroplane flew back to its respective base, with the exception of ZU-AFP.  As a passenger in my plane on this second run I had John Clarke who is doing a story on the alleged poisoning of a gentleman who had been very vociferous in opposing the mining of the dunes. John wanted to fly over the homestead of the late Mr Scorpion which is situated about 15 kilometers inland from the coast, and take some video footage of his home along with the new grave in the front garden where he was buried by his family.

The return flight home to Pietermaritzburg via Margate for fuel was uneventful, but in the glorious sunshine flying south up the coast as far as Scottborough brought home to me once again how privileged I am to be able to fly a small aeroplane in Africa.”

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Scratching with the chickens or soaring with the eagles, by John Clarke [John Clarke is a Social Worker with Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC)]

“Was it a ‘march’ or a ‘walk’?  We were trying to decide how to bill the unusual protest event that SWC’s supporters from the Ramsgate Conservancy on the KZN South Coast wanted to see:  a 7 km solidarity walk with AmaDiba Wild Coast residents, starting from the Wild Coast Sun Casino resort to the Mnyameni Estuary, which lies bang in the middle of the pristine coastal area targeted for heavy minerals mining by Australian mining company MRC Ltd.

On the one hand, we reasoned that since many of the South Coast residents would be older, retired and not quite up to toyi-toying, and that since it wasn’t going to be a formulaic ‘handing over of a memorandum to a government official’ type of event that the pro-mining faction had contrived to do in Pretoria six months earlier, it wasn’t strictly a ‘march’ of angry protesters.  But on the other hand we knew that Wild Coast residents, led by the Amadiba Crisis Committee set up to represent widespread local opposition to the mining, would be wanting to ‘march’ – even if Mr Jacinto Rocha, the Deputy DG of DME whom we had invited to officially receive our petition didn’t turn up.

“OK, let’s simply use both words, and tell supporters that they would ‘march’ with the left leg, and ‘walk’ with the right leg.”

The other issue was to make sure the media covered the event, so that the message got across to government, even if Mr Rocha didn’t arrive personally carry it back to the Minister.  “We can ask The Bateleurs to fly cameras overhead, and maybe 50/50 will cov er it”.   “ Great idea” everyone agreed.

In response to the flight request, Nora Kreher of The Bateleurs called me.  “Thanks John, I got your request.  But we have decided that The Bateleurs want to do something special.  Mining the Wild Coast can’t be allowed to happen.  We want to do a formation flight.  I’ll let you know how many pilots I can muster.”

Social workers are used to dealing with scarcity.  But contending with unexpected abundance poses another sort of challenge.

When the day arrived, instead of the normal constraint of trying to allocate limited seats for a whole ‘click’ of news photographers into a small plane, I had the opposite problem of filling three four seater Cessna’s on a beautiful Sunday Spring tide day, when all that the participants wanted to do was to walk along the beach with the crowd.  I managed to persuade ETV’s Durban bureau chief Dave Coles and his crew to join the squadron.  50/50’s Don Guy ‘reluctantly’ agreed to be embedded in the ‘air force’ instead of filming a worm’s eye view of the 7 km ’infantry’ march.  His assistants, Siphiwe and Sam the ‘klankman’ had to endure the river crossings, the salt spray off the rocks, and the festivity of amaMpondo beauties chanting “iMining iMpumelo. iMining iMpumelo”  (Mining won’t succeed. Mining won’t succeed) with vuvezelas blasting a clarion call to do-no-harm.

Abundance again manifested itself while I was still on the ground directing eager South Coast residents through the gates of the Wild Coast Sun to the parking lot.  After about half an hour of hastening vehicles through to avoid a traffic jam at the entrance, (the walk had to get going to take advantage of low spring tide so they could cross the estuaries) the chap on duty below came running breathlessly to tell us to divert cars to another parking lot because “the bottom parking lot is already full. Send cars to the upper parking lot.”

Some 500 South Coast residents had turned out in an astonishing display of solidarity with the Wild Coast residents to make sure the message got across.  After helping ETV get some quick footage of the masses commencing their Beach Walk/March, it was off to board the planes to witness the spectacle from the air.”

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Participants in the Beach Walk/March

“Unsurprisingly, Bateleurs veteran Paul Dutton turned up with his two-seater Spirit of the Wilderness for good measure as well. There was no way he was going to miss this event.  I was pleased to have Barry de Groot as my pilot – again.  He had flown me and a media team over the area early last year in a howling gale, so I knew he wasn’t going to prang in the near perfect conditions, (the presence of other planes in close proximity notwithstanding), and that I could concentrate on getting the still shots, while Don Guy filmed the movie. 

Barry didn’t disappoint.  A very low level pass over the beach provided the chance to see even the facial expressions of the marchers below, showing me that they were ecstatic to have this civilian ‘airforce’ to bolster their morale and confidence. 

The effort by the pro-mining faction to counter the impact of the event by staging a political jamboree a month later, backfired badly.   Yes, they did manage to get Government there – no less a person than the Minister of Minerals and Energy Buyelwa Sonjica herself – but the obviously contrived and manipulated attempt to emboss the Xolobeni mining proposal with credibility left journalists even more sceptical.  As Fred Kockott, veteran Sunday Tribune journalist reported “It was the strangest of meetings, and a blatant demonstration of the buying power of government, the mining industry and politicians”.

And of course, they didn’t have The Bateleurs doing a formation flypast to welcome the Minister, and signal aerial support for the mining.

The Minister then made a crucial tactical mistake by claiming that the anti-mining lobby was simply the work of “rich whites”, led by Richard Spoor, who were dividing the community so that they could stop the mining and continue to enjoy pristine Wilderness areas, and arresting “progress in our community”.

The Amadiba Crisis Committee and their supporters, emboldened by the same banners and placards that had been made for the Beach Walk/March a month earlier, had turned up in significant numbers.  They were incensed at the Minister’s outrageous comments and insisted that she return for another consultation.  But they insisted it would be with directly affected local residents only, and without all the political razzmatazz.   To her credit, humbled by the courage and conviction of the ACC, she returned a month later to hear firsthand why people on the ground objected so strongly to the mining plans.

After hearing one complaint after the other, there was little the minister could say other than to apologise and plead for forgiveness at the manifest failure in the consultation process.
The following week the terse announcement came from DME.  “The Xolobeni Mining right will not be executed as planned on 31 October, pending the outcome of the appeal lodged by the Legal Resources Centre on behalf of the Amadiba Crisis Committee”.

Most of those who participated in the fantastic Beach Walk/March two months earlier believe It was that event which signalled a decisive shift in the overall alignment of forces for, against and indifferent to the Wild Coast dune mining. 

The profound significance of The Bateleurs contribution to the Amadiba communities growing confidence only hit me a day after the historic formation flight.  I happened to drop in to visit my sister who lives in Durban.  Before I could tell her about my fantastic flight with The Bateleurs, she got in first to tell me about an inspirational quote that she had heard in a Sunday sermon, which happened to be around the same time as I was boarding Barry’s Cessna.  “Why keep scratching in the ground with the chickens, when you can soar to new heights with the eagles”.

Surely it is only a matter of time before the Aussie mining company abandons their ambition to peck away at the Wild Coast coastal dunes and starts ‘repacking for Perth’.  With The Bateleurs ever on hand to soar overhead in tight formation to support local residents in their protests, MRC will have no chance of mining the Wild Coast.”

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