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Community suffers ‘continuous traumatic stress disorder’ from open-cast mining

Community suffers ‘continuous traumatic stress disorder’ from open-cast mining
Open-cast mining has had a traumatic physical and psychological impact on the community of Somkhele. (Photo: landportal.org)

Open-cast mining in Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal, is causing physical and psychological trauma in a nearby community, a report has found.

‘The accumulation of traumatising and stressful events associated with the introduction and operation of open-cast coal mining in Somkhele has caused psychological injury … such as continuous traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety,” psychologist Dr Garret Barnwell told a webinar on Tuesday, 25 October 2022.

Barnwell was commissioned by the legal centre All Rise to do a report on communities affected by mining. He interviewed 26 families from the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation in KwaZulu-Natal, who gave first-hand accounts of how their lives had been affected. The interviews were conducted in the families’ homes so he could also make an assessment of living conditions.

The detailed interviews were designed to assess the level of trauma the families were experiencing. Key to this, said Barnwell, was understanding what the community looked like before mining took place and how it looks now. Among the stressors he determined were the impact of forced relocations and the exhumation and reburial of loved ones.   

‘Betrayal’

The report revealed that the community used to regard Somkhele, with its supportive social networks, as a place to be proud of. They had a sense of security and wellbeing, and had amassed intergenerational wealth.

“Everyone described the relocation process as stressful and undignified. Generally, people felt significantly betrayed by what took place,” Barnwell told the webinar.

He said that compensation was dependent on the material assessment of a person’s house, yet those who were relocated lost cattle, kraal, fields and graves, for which they were not compensated. People described the relocation as a “horrific” experience, especially elders, who became visibly distraught when talking about it.

Barnwell explained that the exhumation of graves is not part of traditional culture and was introduced by mines, worsening the trauma people went through.

Their isibaya (cattle kraals), which they were deprived of, had a spiritual and cultural meaning and were symbols of stature. People who had their own homesteads and grazing land for their livestock were moved into cluster housing, which had a negative financial impact.

‘Environmental suffering’

The people interviewed by Barnwell said the mining caused daily environmental suffering. They said there was noise pollution from blasting and that coal dust was prevalent inside and outside their homes, blackening water in JoJo tanks.

Some said they had skin disorders and asthma from the mining, and a third of respondents reported being suicidal as a result of feeling disempowered and alienated.

Barnwell described these conditions as “continuous traumatic stress disorder”. He said there were no mental healthcare services in the community. 

open cast mining ntshangase

Fikile Ntshangase was part of a group taking legal action to prevent expansion of the Somkhele coal mine adjacent to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Rob Symons)

“We were not included when they conducted meetings, we were just told that we were not involved,” a Somkhele community member told the webinar. 

“We have been affected by dust throughout the day and night. When they do blasting, our houses crack. We can’t even do washing or enjoy water coming from JoJo tanks because it is contaminated.”

She told the webinar that her family has livestock that are dying because of coal dust, while some wander on to the mining land and get lost there.

“Another thing that worries me a lot is we’ve got graves there and the graves were damaged by the mine. We can’t even do our rituals.”

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Dr Dineo Skosana, a coal mining researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute, spoke of the “intangible loss” relocated communities go through. Skosana said classism and racism also played a role.

“I find it problematic that people were relocated for mining but their ancestral graves are placed right by a mine dump,” said Skosana.

The devastation that often comes with mining disproportionately affects women, said Asanda Benya, a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. Benya told the webinar that 500,000 mineworkers in SA suffer from TB and silicosis and the burden of caring for them often falls on women.

“When you have a sick male family member, it has a psychological impact. In most cases, you have to sacrifice taking care of your own self and your own body. The devastation I saw in Somkhele is not periodic, it’s daily, it’s long-term,” said Benya. DM/MC

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