Our Burning Planet


Coalition’s court bid to stop company from mining coal in sensitive Wakkerstroom area

Coalition’s court bid to stop company from mining coal in sensitive Wakkerstroom area

The development of a coal mine in a protected area in one of the country’s Strategic Water Source Areas is being challenged in the Pretoria High Court. The area earmarked for development had its protected status revoked soon after the mine was awarded its water licence.

A proposed mine granted a water licence in one of the country’s Strategic Water Source Areas which provides water to Johannesburg and Tshwane is being challenged in court. The legal battle has been going on for seven years.

The proposed mine, near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, is to be developed by Indian-owned mining company Atha-Africa Ventures. The coalition opposing the mine says it will negatively affect surrounding water resources, including diminishing underground resources such as aquifers and contaminating water through acid mine drainage and groundwater contamination.

Opposing the potential mine is the Mabola Coalition, consisting of the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development and the Bench Marks Foundation.

Water licence

Back in 2016, the director-general in the Department of Water and Sanitation granted a water licence for the proposed mine. In 2019, the Mabola Coalition appealed against the granting of the water licence.

Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) attorney, Tarisai Mugunyani, told Daily Maverick that the most recent hearing this week was one of five litigations against the issuing of the water licence. 

“The properties on which they want the water licence to cover are partially located in a Water Strategic Area known as the Mabola Protected Area,” Mugunyani said.

“Their own reports show that there will be impact (to the water source)… however, they show that there are mitigation factors that they can put in to make sure that they preserve the area.

“Obviously our concern is not whether there is an impact on water sources or acid mine drainage when the mining occurs, but given the significant importance of the area, applying the precautionary principle in terms of Nema (National Environment Management Act), that the mitigation measures put forth are adequate,” the attorney added. 

Mabola Protected Environment covers about 8,000 hectares geared towards biodiversity conservation, among other land uses. The area is also used for subsistence and commercial agriculture as well as eco-tourism. It consists of grassland considered to be a threatened ecosystem, of which about 2% is conserved.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

The area is important not only for its biodiversity, but also falls within the Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source, which is one of 22 areas which produce 50% of the country’s fresh water.

According to a Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment presentation, the proposed mine — which is said to cover about 1,200ha underground and 22.4ha on the surface — the portion of the area where the mine will be located “is not part of the legally protected area wherein mining is prohibited”.

A large part of the protected status of the Mabola Protected Environment was revoked by VR Shongwe, the Mpumalanga MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environment Affairs, in 2021.

Muganyani said the coalition had obtained an interdict to stop the mining company from proceeding with the mine until the court hearings were concluded.

“This interdict comes about because these properties are in a protected area. What the MEC did in Mpumalanga to remove those properties… was to say, now that those properties are not in a protected area, they are going to commence with the mining,” said Mugunyani, adding that the MEC’s decision was being reviewed as well.

The development of a coal mine in or near a protected area — as the country looks to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels — would not only be a contradiction, but detrimental to a South African environment that is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, on a planet that is on the brink of biological collapse.

Furthermore, mining has a notorious legacy of leaving communities divided and environmentally degraded, as well as posing numerous health risks. 

Climate impacts

“We should be expanding, not risking, protected areas in South Africa, particularly in light of the urgent need to adapt to climate impacts,” said CER attorney Tatenda Muponde. 

“The mine’s social and labour plan notes that coal mining will generate dust, noxious gases and smoke, noise, vibrations, traffic, and the ‘contamination of surface and groundwater on downstream water users’. 

“These environmental harms will be imposed on local community members, potentially damaging their health and threatening their long-term means of subsistence livelihoods and employment,” said Muponde.

“The water use licence was issued even though the mine did not adequately assess the mine’s impacts on downstream water users.” DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

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

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options