INDIGENOUS WISDOM OP-ED
Black Mfolozi coal slurry spill: If you contaminate our river, you contaminate our souls
On 24 December 2021, a coal slurry dam at the Zululand Anthracite Colliery collapsed, releasing at least 1.5 million litres of toxic waste into the Umvalo River. According to the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, coal mine slurries are highly acidic and contain toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, lead and manganese.
The waste was carried from the Umvalo River into the Black Mfolozi River, which flows from its source near Vryheid through many rural communities, and through one of South Africa’s last remaining pristine wilderness areas, the Mfolozi section of the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park. The river sustains a living ecosystem which provides water and food to thousands of residents, livestock, and a multitude of wild animal and plant species.
But it also has a more intangible but deeply significant presence in the lives of the communities it flows through. To gain some insight into this, I interviewed Sicelo Mbatha, a spiritual wilderness guide, who grew up in the nearby Hlabisa district, and who leads wilderness trails along the Mfolozi.
Bridget Pitt: How did you feel when you heard about what happened?
Sicelo Mbatha: I felt very bad. These rural communities are always the victims. Even where there are taps, there is no running water, the pipe burst long ago, nobody fixed it. If their water is poisoned, what must they drink? What must their animals drink? These mines are owned by people who don’t come from here, but they contaminate our rivers, and perhaps they don’t care because they don’t belong here. It is all about exploiting because you take, take, without even considering that the river is giving life to people who are living nearby.
BP: You grew up in the rural community of Hlabisa, close to the Black Mfolozi. Can you tell us what the rivers meant to your community?
SM: We saw the river as a living entity. It was not just water, something that you can freely destroy or contaminate. My father always said the river carries the life-giving energy of a woman: fish live in water, many insects, water birds come to drink and feed on the insects… it provides life to all these things as well as to humans. It has this energy of generosity, of taking care of one another, of giving life.
We knew from the elders in the village that the rivers are sacred, and you must not contaminate them. You can swim in them, but you must not pee or defecate in the water, you must go 100m away… There was no cholera or bilharzia because we observed these practices. The river was our mother, and just as you would never harm your mother, so we were careful never to harm the river. The elders used to say, if you see this tree hanging over the river, don’t cut it because the roots are helping to clean the water… there was a lot of indigenous wisdom about how to care for the rivers.
BP: In your memoir you describe a ritual you went through after your father died, how part of the ritual involved taking your mother down to the river for a symbolic cleansing. Do the rivers also feature in the spiritual life of these communities?
SM: Yes, rivers are very important to the spiritual life of our communities. In our culture the man is the head of the family, and the woman is the heart of the family, so when the head of the family dies, there is a lot of sadness within the heart of the family. After the funeral, women will take the widow to the river to wash off the tears, so that she can enter the mourning stage with a clean heart, so that she can dwell in the room of sorrow for the one who has passed away.
Later, we perform the ihlambo ceremony, a very important ritual to help the one who has passed away into the realm of the ancestors, and again the widow is cleansed in the river of her mourning and her mourning clothes are burnt. These rituals are still very much alive, but they need to be performed in flowing, clean water, not water contaminated by poisons or pesticides… there are a lot of crucial practices that may be uprooted by mines coming into rural areas and polluting rivers. Practices that help bring us together, help us cope with hardships. When you uproot their practices, you destroy the soul of a community.
The river is also critical for the spiritual lives of the izangoma. When they want to connect with their ancestors, where do they go? They go to the river; they get into the deepest lungs of the water, to connect with the divine spirit, and they come back with something to symbolise their journey… so they use rivers to communicate with ancestral spirits or with the divine spirits living in the water.
BP: You first spent time on the banks of the Black Mfolozi with your father, who was working in the Mfolozi Reserve at the time. Can you tell us about some of your memories of the river? What did it mean to you?
SM: I have so many memories of that time… I remember seeing a flock of great white egrets flying above the river, how they were reflected in the still water, so that when I looked at my own reflection it was as if I was mingling with the birds. In those days the water was so clean you could just drink straight from the river. I remember once after drinking, I saw elephants drinking upstream. I realised that the elephants and I were drinking from the same water. I felt such connection with them… it was on the banks of this river that I understood my true calling to protect nature and to awaken others to its power and beauty.
Just as the river gives life to us humans, it sustains the life of the animals. I remember the many tracks of the animals who had come down to drink, their patterns in the sand. My father knew them all. Rivers are truly the lifeblood of all creatures.
When I drank those pure waters of the Black Mfolozi straight from the river, I imagined my children and grandchildren would be able to do the same. But even before this latest spill, the rivers were too contaminated by toxins from the mines and pesticides to drink without purification.
BP: The mine owners and politicians say that the destruction caused by the mines to these communities is compensated for by the wealth they bring. Do you agree with this?
SM: Where is that wealth? There is no wealth. It brings wealth to the politicians and mine owners, not to the people. And even some of these coal companies are facing bankruptcy. Everything is falling apart in these communities, and we cannot run away from that. If you need the police to attend to a problem in the village, they will say they have no vehicles; you call an ambulance at eight o’clock and it will come at half past two, there are no ambulances… coal mining brings more tears than wealth.
If you drive from Imfolozi to Mtubatuba, through the mine-affected communities, you can smell the sadness… people are getting sick, their houses are cracking, the dust is getting to their lungs, the livestock are sick, their water is black with coal dust, you just smell the sadness. So I don’t believe in this wealth, it brings more poverty and desperation.
BP: The collapse of the slurry dam was caused partially by recent heavy rains. This is one of many extreme weather events that are likely to occur because of climate change, brought on by burning the same fossil fuels that were being mined at the Zululand Anthracite Colliery. Can you comment on this?
SB: What happened is like a window – it gives us a clear picture of what we are doing to the world. All the communities surrounded by mines have these problems, here and globally… in the Amazon rainforest, in the Congo, in India, in Burkina Faso. These problems are the daily bread of communities around the mines. And climate change is bringing even more destruction to our lives – the lightning is becoming more aggressive, people are losing homes and lives from heavy winds and flooding. There are many signs of climate change, warning us, but we are not considering them. I remember even some years ago, my father would say: “I am worried that the yellow-billed kite stays longer now – why is it so confused? Why are there no more Piet-my-vrous in summer? They come so late now. Why are there so few water insects at the river for the birds to eat?” My father could not read or write but he could tell that there was something wrong.
Pollution and climate change are putting pressure on our communities and creating poverty. Out of frustration people are striking in the streets and boycotting… But as long as we humans keep mining and burning fossil fuels such as coal, things will only get worse.
BP: Recently, Minister Gwede Mantashe suggested that those opposing new gas explorations are the new colonialists trying to deprive an African country of its wealth. What is your view of this suggestion?
SM: This makes me angry, because he is painting a wrong image. As I said, I was raised by the elders to respect the rivers and nature… it was part of our tradition and culture to conserve all these sacred places long before the colonialists came. It was the colonialists who brought these practices that destroy the Earth.
BP: In many countries, indigenous people have won court cases giving rivers the same rights as people – for example, last year the Magpie River in Canada was granted the right to flow, the right to be safe from pollution, and the right to sue. Do you think it might be valuable to give a river such as the Black Mfolozi similar rights?
SM: Yes, it would be good. Many indigenous peoples here and in other continents will tell you that a river is a living thing, that when we look at the river we are looking at a live entity, as we are looking at a person… I myself was raised to recognise the river as a living entity. I don’t know why these rights were not given long ago. It would be good to fight for it, although I can see a mountain to climb because our leaders are not into conservation, they want to serve their own interests. But better to try to do it.
BP: Our government is tasked with regulating mining activity to limit or prevent disasters such as this. What is your message to our leaders regarding the conservation of rivers and the environment?
SM: I would say that it is very painful that their main focus is not saving Earth, they are not trying hard. The time is now, to protect wild places such as the Mfolozi Park, but also to protect the nature that supports communities. If they fail nature, they are failing the people, because nature is protecting people. You cannot protect the rights of people without protecting nature. We are like feathers on a bird… the feathers cannot live without the bird to sustain them. The environment can survive without us, but we cannot live one day without it.
Two years ago, climate change scientists were warning us that we only have 10 years left to take action, otherwise everything will be in dire straits. There are so many warning signs that we are in serious trouble. But I hope that this coal spill will focus people’s minds and help to bring change. OBP/DM
Sicelo Mbatha recently released a memoir and philosophical reflection on a life spent in intimate association with the wilderness and nature in this area. The memoir, co-authored with Bridget Pitt, is titled Black Lion: Alive in the Wilderness and is published by Jonathan Ball. See the Daily Maverick review here.