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Expert report uncovers ‘hidden mental trauma’ of opencast coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal

Expert report uncovers ‘hidden mental trauma’ of opencast coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal
One of the many homesteads on the fenceline of Tendele open cast coal mine near Mtubutuba. (Photo: Supplied)

‘Those who witnessed the (grave exhumation) process said that it was horrifying. Some saw semi-decomposed bodies removed, while others reported diggers plunging pickaxes into the graves and returning with bones stuck on the picks. One resident said that he saw the skull of his loved one attached to the end of the pickaxe.’ — Dr Garret Barnwell.

Imagine drinking water stained jet black and undrinkable from coal dust. Or seeing streams of black soot pouring down your walls. Dust staining your furniture and clothes daily.

Then there is the regular, juddering explosion of dynamite ripping the earth apart. Children coughing from the muck in the air… threats and social exclusion from former friends or neighbours who claim that you are “anti-development”… or seeing the graves of loved ones dug up and their remains dumped in unmarked graves.

And, perhaps worst of all, getting kicked out of your homestead and saying goodbye to the land your family worked for many years to raise livestock or grow their own crops.

According to a new study by Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Dr Garret Barnwell, these are just some of the factors that have contributed to the “profound adverse psychological impacts of a collective traumatic nature” on several families living on the fencelines of the Somkhele coal mine.

This opencast anthracite coal mine near Mtubatuba in KwaZulu-Natal has been operating since 2007. In recent years, it has been the focus of a series of court battles involving local residents divided between those who oppose or support mining; government regulators; traditional leaders; unions and the mine owners (Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd).

Tensions rose so high that 63-year-old anti-mining activist and local resident Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down in her kitchen by assassins in October 2020. Two years later, the local police have not arrested a single suspect for a murder that was remarkably similar to that of Sikosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe, an anti-mining activist from the Xolobeni area of the Wild Coast in 2016.

Since the discovery of coal at Somkhele in 2006, at least 225 families have been “resettled” and scores of other families now face a similar future as the ripple waves of mining spread further into a remote rural community which still bears the colonial designation of “Reserve No 3”.

opencast mining tendele

The Somkhele mining area. (Image: Supplied)

For many decades, residents of this community immediately south of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve have based their lives largely around subsistence agriculture, rearing cattle and goats or growing crops where there is sufficient water.

Many residents have also been forced to seek work in towns and cities to earn enough income to support their families. So, while the arrival of the mining company offered the prospect of some new jobs closer to home, the coal mine has also proved devastating for those who had to watch their homes being demolished.

Study findings

It is against this backdrop that Dr Barnwell conducted a study earlier this year involving 35 residents who were either evicted from their homes or have been impacted by the mining activities of Tendele.

Barnwell’s expert report was commissioned by All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice, which has represented activist residents and members of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) in several court battles against the mine owners and regulators.

To some extent, his findings mirror some of the conclusions of a separate study published earlier this year by researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which highlighted the often hidden impacts of natural disasters such as floods and droughts, and the early onset of mental depression in vulnerable communities in South Africa

In their study published in the journal PloS Climate, Dr Andrew Tomita and his colleagues further noted that depression is a leading cause of disability globally. It affects nearly 10% of people in South Africa, but only 3.9% access the inpatient and outpatient mental health care that they need. 

Continuous traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety

Barnwell’s study of the psychological impact of opencast coal mining at Somkhele concludes that the majority of the residents he interviewed meet the criteria for continuous traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. 

Almost a third also reported a sense of fatalism or “suicidality… thinking they would be better off dead or hurting themselves”.

opencast mining somkhele

A resident of the Somkhele area bows his head while attending a group meeting with clinical psychologist Dr Garret Barnwell. (Photo: Casey Pratt)

Barnwell conceded that the small sample size of those he interviewed (35 people) created limitations, and that statistically, this sample was not representative of the general population in the area. 

“However, experts on the psychosocial impacts of mining suggest that critical case study sampling is more appropriate, as the purpose is to show harm rather than the generalisability of this harm across the population.

“Future research could determine the extent of risk of various neurocognitive disorders for fenceline communities in Somkhele over their life course.”

Barnwell suggests that mental health is largely neglected when measuring the environmental impacts of mining projects in South Africa, though significant international research showed how mining can contribute to trauma, severe mental health conditions and other psychological adversity.

“Although mining was, for some of those interviewed, seen as potentially amplifying their family’s wealth and wellbeing, living in an opencast coal mining area has become a chronic stressor, making life worse and stifling the possibility for the family to flourish.”

For most of those who reported severe psychological distress, the current conditions had made it more difficult, if not impossible, to recover completely.

Fears of reprisal

The names of residents who spoke to Barnwell were excluded from his report as it was common knowledge that people raising concerns about mining had been targeted.

“Most of those I interviewed believe that Fikile Ntangashe was assassinated for her opposition to mining. Such violence has a chilling effect, and some of those interviewed reported that they feared reprisals when raising concerns.”

Tracing the history of the community before Tendele arrived, Barnwell notes that currently mined areas were not “empty pieces of land”. 

Many Somkhele residents had lived there for generations, while other families had sought refuge here after being dispossessed from “wilderness” areas such as the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

A place of pride, independence and security

“Somkhele was also said to be a place of pride, independence and security in a time of great upheaval for those who found refuge in the village during apartheid. ‘I never wanted to work for a white man,’ Resident 2 explained, and living in Somkhele before the mine came gave a sense of dignity, which was affirmed by being a farmer and having livestock.”

Apart from raising cattle and other livestock, or growing vegetables for subsistence food, some residents also grew cash crops such as sugar cane to fund a university education for their children or their own retirement savings.

somkhele homesteads

An example of homesteads in Somkhele before relocation. (Source: Google Earth)

“It is important not to romanticise conditions of living. An interviewee explained: ‘There were some challenges before the mine came. The clinic was far from our homes, but life was generally far better than it is now. We were happy with what we had because we had land and food, and we could afford to send our children to school’.”

While it was unclear how many residents supported or opposed mining before the first relocations, Barnwell said the residents he spoke to felt they were not able to raise discontent and did not feel fully informed about the consequences of mining.

Mining misery, relocations

“Today, however, all of those I interviewed said that mining had made their lives miserable.

“Generally, the strong rhetoric of progress (e.g., that mining would bring jobs, better livelihoods and that mining was the future) and the perceived concealment of harm was viewed by residents as being one of the main traumatising aspects… 

“It was said that traditional authorities approved mining without everyone’s informed consent or full knowledge of what was going to take place.”

Barnwell was told there were several traumatising waves of relocations. 

opencast mining somkhele

Lihle Mbokazi of All Rise Attorneys and Dr Garret Barnwell at a recent group meeting with current or former Somkhele residents. (Photo: Casey Pratt)

In some cases, Tendele gave residents money to identify their own home, while others were moved into houses that Tendele built, such as prefabricated housing, cluster housing or homes that resembled traditional structures.

Several families felt they had to take deals offered because they would otherwise lose out and have nothing. 

“Part of the relocation process involved assessing the value of people’s homes and fields for compensation. One common strand expressed by those I interviewed was that this assessment process was experienced as undignified. 

“In identifying how much a family would be compensated, assessors were said to have marked down houses with cracks, infrastructural issues or other perceived problems.”

This was seen as a “dehumanising” experience by many, while cash payouts were often spent quickly and it was difficult to re-establish the family to the standard of living that existed before.

Exhumation and reburial trauma

But it was the process of exhuming loved ones and ancestors that created some of the most severe trauma.

“In my expert opinion, one of the significant traumatising experiences has been the grave relocation process… 

“The first stage of the trauma related to the exhumation of graves, and the second stage of the trauma is associated with the reburial.

“Multiple ancestral graves were removed. 

“For instance, one person interviewed reported that her family had up to 30 graves removed… one mother expressed how she had to watch her daughter exhumed two months after being buried.

opencast mining graves

Overgrown and unmarked. Some of the many graves relocated by the Tendele mining company. (Photo: Supplied)

“Another interviewee reported that he had a family member who buried his wife three months before exhuming the bodies.”

Despite families not wanting to go through with the process, some elders asked to be involved in the exhumations, feeling a sense of responsibility.

“Those who witnessed the process said that it was horrifying. Some saw semi-decomposed bodies removed, while others reported diggers plunging pickaxes into the graves and returning with bones stuck on the picks. One resident said that he saw the skull of his loved one attached to the end of the pickaxe…

“Those who could afford (burial) reed mats, rolled the bodies and bones into them and those who could not, put them into plastic.”

The second stage of this traumatising process was the reburial of family members in unmarked graves.

“It was explained to me that no one was given tombstones, and the whereabouts of family members were unknown. Residents felt hurt and angry about what had happened.”

Isibaya destruction

The destruction of cattle kraals (isibaya) or inadequate compensation payments, added to the trauma.

“While kraals are where cattle and goats may be kept, the significance of this stressor may also be overlooked by those who are not culturally sensitive to the importance of the isibaya to families,” says Barnwell, noting that these kraals were often the sites for traditional ceremonies, marriages or the burial of elders.

Some were built painstakingly, with stones or hardwood logs rather than wire or corrugated iron and were regarded as status symbols.

“A standard narrative was described, which is as follows: ‘We were gathered together by the traditional leaders and Nkosi [chief], and told that the mine was coming and that the mine should be given the land to mine’.”

Blasting, coal dust and lost community

One family member from each household signed the agreement for relocation and was promised a job in the mine. After that, the landscape and sense of community was changed forever as dynamite charges blasted the land apart and filled the air with coal dust.

opencast mining dust

A demonstration of dust on household surfaces. (Photo: Garret Barnwell)

Several residents reported damage to their homes, including cracks in the walls or shattered windows. One resident told Barnwell that her home collapsed completely, but claimed she did not report this to the mine as damage and compensation complaints by other residents had been dismissed or attributed to poor foundations or inferior construction.

somkhele blasting damage

Damage to a home attributed to blasting. (Photo: Garret Barnwell)

Other residents, who were not relocated, felt isolated or “left behind” from the rest of their community, an issue exacerbated by the erection of fences around the mining area.

Adding to this stress, said the residents, was the regular drift of coal dust or the noise from blasting, machinery and trucks, or the pollution of water.

“One of the most frequent complaints was about the inability to control dust. Dust from the mine is ever-present in the daily lives of those living in the opencast coal mining area…

opencast mining coal dust

Roofs bleed black. (Photo: Garret Barnwell)

“The dust is insidious and finds its way onto every surface and through every crevice or gap. Coal dust accumulates on the windows, finds its way into household goods and discolours fabrics. 

“Several houses replaced their furniture, linen and curtains with darker colours to hide the dust,” Barnwell reported.

Health fears

“All those interviewed perceived that the mine was the cause of deteriorating health from asthma, respiratory illness, sinus problems, dry noses and itchy skin.

One elder complained: “We do not know what the dirt is doing to our health. It smells bad a lot. When they blast, it smells terrible.” 

The water that some families tried to harvest in rain tanks either bought or provided by the mine was also said to be contaminated by the coal dust.

opencast mining water

A resident shows a glass of water from a rainwater tank contaminated by open cast coal mining. (Photo: Garret Barnwell)

“Some reported that they used to drink rainwater, but if they drink it now, they have stomach problems, attributing this to the sediment from the mine that now forms in the water owing to the runoff from the house’s roofs.”

‘Targeted for dissent’

Even before the murder of Fikile Ntshangase, those who voiced their concerns openly or became members of MCEJO had been “targeted for dissenting views”.

“Multiple examples suggest this is taking place. For instance, when going to protests, some residents reported that they would hear people in the taxi talking about them…

“In an atmosphere of perceived failures in the justice system, some MCEJO members have received direct threats and have gone into hiding for some time, worrying about their safety.

“Some reported feeling discriminated against for their beliefs and viewed as being ‘backwards’ or ‘anti-development’.”

PTSD intervention advised

Summarising his findings, Barnwell concludes that 85% of the people interviewed met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Nearly 70% reported difficulty concentrating; 78% reported disturbed sleep and more than 90% of those interviewed were above the threshold for a probable diagnosis of depression within the past month.

“The collective nature of the trauma endured by those I interviewed necessitates systemic interventions to prevent further psychological harm and promote healing and recovery,” he concludes, adding that the physical safety and psychological integrity of those interviewed, and other potentially affected community members, should be urgently prioritised.

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He also recommends that the mine owners should consider financial compensation for psychological damage and the intergenerational nature of collective trauma.

“It is recommended that this amount should be estimated to support families to access lifelong psychological care. Considering that no public psychological services are being provided in the area, it is recommended that transportation costs also be considered.”

He also calls for a more extensive health assessment of fenceline communities and further reparations related to unmarked graves and the loss of farming and grazing lands, isibaya and livestock.

Find the full report here:Everything for Dust: the Collective Trauma of Opencast Coal Mining on Residents in Somkhele, KZN”.

Tendele’s reaction

In his initial reaction to the report, Tendele Coal CEO Jan du Preez said:

“The report was only published yesterday, and we will of course study the findings and will then be able to meaningfully respond.

“The report has been compiled without any input from the mine, Mpukunyoni Traditional Council (TC), retrenched employees that reside in the area and no doubt, the 20,000-odd community members that benefit from the mine’s operations.

“We understand that a podcast was hosted yesterday, and neither the mine, TC nor many community members have been invited to participate. It speaks volumes that the podcast was hosted on a webinar, a platform in which most of the community would not have the means to access.

“We were also informed by the TC Mining Committee Chairmen, Mr Sibiya, that after being informed of the webinar, that he encouraged All Rise to rather host the meeting on the ground and in the community. This would then allow for a wider range of participants and a more balanced perspective of the ‘trauma’ of opencast mining in the Somkhele area. Sadly, All Rise have failed to respond to his request.

“We have still yet to receive or review the report nor understand who their intended audience is so we may be able to provide better feedback in due course. We understand that only 35 people were interviewed, and all 35 people are MCEJO members — clients of All Rise — and the same MCEJO who’s aim is to close the mine.

“We further learned that no base line study was performed. We have also been informed that no one from the Traditional Council or Municipality has been interviewed (the local authority responsible for some 220,000 people), and that the study did not for one moment consider the grave implications that the closure of the mine will have on the livelihoods and psychological impact of some 20 000 people in the community that depend on the mine’s survival.

“We have been a ‘guest’ in the community since 2006 and pride ourselves to live in harmony with our neighbours in this poverty stricken area. Once we have studied the report, we will advise our response.” DM168

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