South Africa


Hidden cost of coal: Sacrificing communities and the environment for short-term gain

Hidden cost of coal: Sacrificing communities and the environment for short-term gain
Sabelo Dladla points out the view while looking away from Somkhele mine. (Photo: Bridget Pitt)

The new Integrated Resource Plan commits our economy to coal for the foreseeable future — but the costs of this on South Africans are mounting. This article explores the devastating impact of a dying, immensely destructive industry on a KwaZulu-Natal rural community, and the determined battle being waged by Sabelo Dladla and others to have their rights acknowledged.

If you look out from Sabelo Dladla’s homestead in one direction, you see the green rolling hills of the Somkhele district. Below your feet, the Mbukwini Dam widens into a vlei that mirrors the deep blue of the sky above it. Beyond this lies the valley of the great iMfolozi, the broad undulating river that has been the lifeblood of the area since time began. Aloes stand like sentinels on the hillside, holding their serrated arms up to the heavens. The pastures are dotted with cattle; harmonious singing can be heard from a nearby church gathering.

The people here have faced hardship, but in previous times they could rely on abundant grazing, clean air and rivers that flowed. Their cattle could wander the pastures freely, as they had for hundreds of years. But now these hills tell a different story.

For if you turn to look the other way, you see a wall. A great, towering barrier of rubble and stones. It looms over the few small buildings of Sabelo’s homestead, so close it seems a matter of hours or days before Sabelo’s homestead will be swallowed by it. Many homesteads lie buried beneath the rubble, but apparently it will not swallow Sabelo’s home. Yet the mine that lies beyond the wall has irrevocably changed his life, and the life of the community around him.

The wall is the rampart of a massive dump of excavated earth and boulders that sprawls out in all directions, forming a terraced flat-topped mountain rising over 100m. A monumental temple to the god of Fossil Fuel. Trucks trail up one side, bringing fresh loads of rubble — the distant rumble of machinery can be heard above the singing, like the drone of an approaching insect swarm.

If you were one of the sacred ibis flying overhead, you would see that behind the rubble mountain is a deep, wide crater, gouged out of the earth, black with coal dust and crawling with yellow trucks and earthmovers. Ironically called caterpillars, although no caterpillar could survive an instant in this landscape. It has swallowed pastures, trees, churches, schools, streams, ancestral graves and 220km2of arable lands. This is Somkhele Mine, supplier of 50% of South Africa’s anthracite coal.

Sabelo’s first experience with mining was 15 years ago. As a small child, he used to visit the area in Machabini, where his aunt lived, to attend the Roman Catholic Church. But the fields he played in, the paths he walked are gone now, buried by the mine.

A few years after carving out the mine at Machabini, Tendele Coal Mining set their sights on a new area, close to the Dladla homestead. When they began knocking on people’s doors advising them that they would have to move, Sabelo’s father became disturbed.

The growing Somkhele mine dump near Sabelo Dladla’s home encroaches on precious water resources. (Photo: Bridget Pitt)

The mining company was making many promises to the evictees, but they were not signing any undertakings committing them to these agreements. Why, Mr Gednezar Dladla wanted to know, was nothing on paper? The mining authorities did not appreciate his questions. They told him that, as his homestead would not be moved, he was not part of the “Directly Affected Community” (the DAC) and was therefore not allowed to attend the mine’s meetings with this group.

Gednezar Dladla’s questions were not only resented by the mining company. The traditional leadership stood to benefit from business contracts with the mine and they were deeply hostile to anyone questioning its value to the community.

Sabelo recalls how his parents and siblings often had to flee in the night from unknown gunmen. Despite the threats, Gednezar Dladla continued to engage with the “directly affected” community, but many were persuaded by the mining company. The company did not give them compensation for the land they were to be moved from — although most had been living on this land for generations, it did not belong to them.

The land is owned by the Ingonyama Trust, a tribal authority under King Goodwill Zwelethini, and supposedly managed for the benefit of the community. Therefore the mining company was offering compensation only for the structures on the land — a small house, perhaps, a chicken coop, a cattle kraal. Further, the mine determined what these things were worth. The compensation offered was usually less than R300,000, but for people of modest means, this sounded like a lot. And within a few months, they all signed.

But the money did not last and people soon realised what they’d lost. The structures on the land were just the framework that facilitated their lives. Their real wealth was beneath their feet. It was in the rolling hills of sweet grass for their cattle; it was in the waterways, the slow meandering rivers and secret springs that could help them through droughts; it was in the clean air and fertile soil, where they could grow mealies, sugar cane and vegetables. It was in their ancestral memories, the knowledge that they walked the paths of their forefathers, that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents were buried close by; that the umbilical cords of generations were laid in the soil. All of this was gone and would not be coming back.

A number of ancestral graves were also moved by the mine. “The mine has done nothing to properly identify these graves,” Sabelo says. “For families, this is a very serious concern. You need to go through ceremonies to explain the problem to the ancestors, you have to slaughter a cow or a goat to calm them, you need umqombothi beer, and you need to get the graves properly identified. This all may cost as much as R74,000, but the mine is only offering R8,500 per grave.”

The mining company’s distinction between the “directly affected community” and those living on adjoining lands is not only divisive, but also misleading. Everyone living nearby is directly affected. In the Dladla homestead, as in many others, a building has fallen down due to the nearby blasting, others have cracks in the walls. The mine alleges that the affected houses were poorly built, but many had been standing for decades with no signs of cracks.

The lights and noise of machinery are a constant disturbance in this once tranquil environment, with workshifts that run through the night and on weekends. Sabelo has lost two cows which fell when trying to ascend the rubble heap to reach a spring they used to drink from. His goats now have to be tethered and stand bleating forlornly. Rainwater collected in tanks is black with soot, making it undrinkable.

You don’t want to be here when the wind blows,” he says. “The soot and dust causes headaches and coughs. At the clinics, they say that people are getting the lung diseases of miners, just by living close to the mine.”

Their grazing lands have shrunk, too, as those moved from the areas under the mine are now accommodated near adjoining homesteads. Water is contaminated by mine run-off, and many of the streams have been lost — buried or fenced in by the mine. An elderly man told me that the intestines of the cows were once the prized meal reserved for village elders — now they taste bad because there is soot in the cows’ stomachs. Women in many communities have to walk much further to get water.

In 2015, Mr Gednezar Dladla passed away. Exhausted by the years of harassment, the family thought they were finished with community activism. But the community had other ideas.

Whenever I was going to the shops or to herd the cattle or wherever, people would approach me to ask me to carry on with my father’s work. So at last, I agreed to call a meeting. At that first meeting, the Induna came and he was very angry that I was following in my father’s footsteps. He said he did not want me calling any meetings, or inviting environmental organisations from outside.”

The induna made life difficult for Sabelo and his family. But community members were resolved to address their grievances, and they kept on meeting to discuss what they could do. Around this time, they started working with the Fuleni community, who were opposed to a coal mine that was proposed on the borders of the iMfolozi Wilderness area, part of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park.

Together, the groups formed the 4,000-strong Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). In 2017, MCEJO received funding from the Global Environmental Trust to appoint a lawyer to assist them. Sabelo had a comprehensive history of the struggle, compiled by himself and his father before him. When he and the lawyer began to explore the records, they discovered that the mining company had failed to comply with several pieces of legislation relating to environmental and national mining and water use laws.

Accordingly, Sabelo, the Global Environmental Trust and MJECP launched an interdict application against Tendele Mining operations. Represented by attorney Kirsten Youens, they submitted that the Somkhele mine was operating illegally, as it had no environmental authorisation, no municipal planning approval, no waste disposal licence and no permits to shift ancestral graves.

On August 24 2018, three busloads of community supporters travelled to Pietermaritzburg for the hearing. Their spirits were high, but they were soon to be disappointed. Judge Rishi Seegobin dismissed their application and awarded costs against them. The ruling sent a signal that mining companies could flout environmental legislation and that community groups who challenged this in the public interest could be silenced by the threat of punitive costs.

This was unheard of,” Sabelo said. “All the cases like ours that have been brought by civil society around environmental rights, even under the provisions of NEMA, it’s clear that you do not order parties like ourselves to pay the costs.” This principle was confirmed in the Biowatch Constitutional Court case.

The Department of Mineral and Energy and the Ingonyama Trust were cited as respondents with Tendele Coal Mining in defending their application — even though some of the department’s own regulations had been flouted. In their defending papers, Tendele listed a range of benefits the mine had brought, but Sabelo said many of these were hollow.

They claimed to be employing 1,300, including subcontractors, but our records only show that they employ 200. We asked for proof — payslips etc — to show the number of employees, but they just gave us a letter from the HR saying that they employed that number. They claim to have built a school, but the school was there already, they relocated it. They claim to have built a clinic, but they just added a labour ward to an existing clinic.”

The mines have brought some benefits — jobs have been created, and some community members — in particular the tribal leadership — have profited from contracts to transport coal, taxi workers and other services. And no doubt wealth has been created for the company. But these benefits have come at a high cost: The lost livelihoods of those who have been moved, of those who live on the borders of the mine: the lost soil, air and water resources; lost biodiversity; lost ancestral connections; lost environmental health. A major source of income for the area is tourism, as tourists pass through on their way to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. This too is being compromised by the blight on the landscape of the burgeoning mines. Many of these losses are irrevocable; all are drastically undervalued.

When researching for the court case, the MCEJO team discovered that Tendele had been awarded rights to begin mining on the other side of the R618, in the Ophondweni, Mahujini and Malahleni villages. This will be classified as Area 4 and Area 5, and cover about 222km2. The community was not consulted before this mining right was granted. MCEJO followed due process and objected to the extension, but their application was dismissed by the Department of Minerals and Energy.

The community members asked to meet the department to find out why their concerns had been dismissed. Initially, the department set the meeting at the Protea Hotel, which is in a totally different district. The Somkhele demanded that the meeting be reconvened in their area. But when they arrived at the reconvened meeting, they were shocked to see that the CEO and COO of Tendele were there to address them. This was supposed to be a meeting between the community and Department of Minerals and Energy task team that was set up by the minister, Gwede Mantashe, to enable the community to raise questions and grievances.

But the department seemed happy to give the mining company a platform to promote their cause. This illustrates how strongly the Department of Minerals and Energy favours the interests of the mining companies over those of the local community. Authorities who should be neutral brokers — the government and the tribal authorities — are heavily invested in the mine. Even the municipalities of many mining communities assist in harassing community protests, demanding unnecessary permits for any protest activity.

Three years ago, the area suffered the worst drought in living memory. The mine made the effects of the drought even harsher, by pumping water from the Mfolozi and using it to wash coal. This dried up the river, and the run-off polluted scarce water resources.

We used to know of secret springs that would flow even in the drought, but now the mine has destroyed them. What little water flows is undrinkable — we have to walk half a day to collect it,” a woman from Somkhele reported in an interview with WoMin African Gender and Extractives Alliance. The extra time that women spend in collecting water is detracting from their ability to engage in income-generation activities such as crafts.

As global warming takes hold, droughts like this are becoming the norm. Already, widespread droughts in large areas of the country are killing livestock, destroying thousands of agricultural jobs — 31,000 in the past year — and seriously threatening food security. Just as South Africa should be doing everything in its power to conserve precious water resources, more mining rights are being handed out that will destroy them. Coal is doubly destructive; when coal that has been gouged from the earth is burnt, it will send billions of carbon dioxide molecules into the atmosphere, bringing the devastation of climate disruption ever closer.

The British colonialists first discovered coal in this land and built mines to power their trains and sugar mills. The coal expanded the wealth of the empire, while destroying the lands of the indigenous people, and destroying the health of their young men sent to work in the mines. The great mining houses such as Anglo American, South 32, BHP Billiton and Glencore (many of which are owned by decendants of the colonialists), have built their fortunes on these resources, but are recognising now that coal has no future.

They are disinvesting, selling mines at minimal cost to newly formed black business consortiums such as Seriti Resources — on condition that the new owners take responsibility for the considerable costs of rehabilitation. But far from being a sweet deal to promote black empowerment, these mines are a poisoned chalice and threaten to become stranded assets.

While the latest version of the Integrated Resource Plan indicates that the South African government is resolved to commit the economy to dirty coal, condemning the country to the crippling droughts, devastating floods, job losses and food shortages that climate breakdown promises, the rest of the world is recognising that the age of coal is over.

Funders are disinvesting, and soon the great expensive dinosaurs of Medupi and Kusili will be empty monuments to poor planning, poor vision and the sacrifice of the greater good for the short-term enrichment of the few.

A coal mine is not a pretty sight. Even less pretty is an abandoned coal mine. South Africa already has plenty of these. Sections of the Somkhele mine are already reaching the end of their lives. In a few short years, the gates will close and the jobs and business contracts will be gone. But the grass won’t grow again, the streams won’t flow. Rehabilitating a mine is a costly business, and, if the mine is abandoned, the mining company often does not put in the money it is legally obliged to pay. Six thousand of the more than 7,500 mines in South Africa are abandoned and the government must spend R30-billion to fix the environmental damage caused by them — money it can scant afford.

There was a time when the benefits of electricity could be balanced against the devastation caused by coal mining and coal burning. But now electricity can be generated with minimal environmental costs. Technology exists for clean, cheap energy from wind and solar, already less than half of what coal-generated power costs, and getting cheaper by the day. Thousands of jobs can be created, jobs that won’t choke the lungs of the workers or bury them in mining shafts.

The ANC NEC itself called for the Integrated Resource Plan to “articulate the lowest-cost option for the future energy mix for South Africa, with increased contributions from renewable energy sources”. Yet the government is resisting this. In the latest IRP, it has committed to producing 60% of South Africa’s energy through coal-powered stations, even though the costs of this far outweigh the costs of converting to renewables. And the mining unions are resisting even the small allowance made for electricity generated from renewables.

Sabelo Dladla has faced threats of violence and ongoing harassment. He had to flee his home after being falsely accused of murder. But he is not giving up the struggle any time soon. The appeal against the Seegobin judgment should be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal before February 2020 and he is confident it will be successful. He and MCEJO have also filed a Review Application in the North Gauteng High Court to review and set aside the director-general’s decision to grant Tendele the extended mining rights on the other side of the R618. The application is also to review and set aside the minister’s decision to dismiss the internal appeal brought against the director-general’s decision to grant the mining right.

Our struggle has matured now, we have taken it to another level by getting legal people involved. For the past 10 [years] we have been fighting for the acknowledgement of our rights and voice existence in the community. I am now satisfied that indeed victory is certain.”

For Sabelo and other residents of eSiyembeni, eMachibini, Dubelenkunzi, Myeki and eZimambeni, life has changed forever. Their struggle is only for the mine to provide fair compensation and comply with environmental regulations. For this they continue to face constant harassment and threats, in addition to coping with all the problems the mine has brought.

Their story is echoed in mining-affected communities all over South Africa — in KwaZulu-Natal, in Mpumalanga. For all of South Africa, time to save our environment and our climate from catastrophic destruction is fast running out.

It appears that Gwede Mantashe regards himself as Minister of Coal, rather than Minister of Energy, as he gives the impression he is unable to recognise that any other forms of energy have a significant role to play in South Africa’s future.

His short-sightedness is a threat to all of us. It is time for the government to stand for the well-being of the people of South Africa, and not for the narrow interests of a dying, immensely destructive industry. DM

Bridget Pitt is a South African author with a keen interest in environmental and social justice issues. She has published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and three novels in South Africa, Canada and the United Kingdom. Her work has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth book prize; Wole Soyinka African Literature Award and Commonwealth Short Story Award, and was runner up in the Short Sharp Stories competition.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz