Our Burning Planet


When you drive from Mfolozi to Mtubatuba, you can smell the sadness in the air

When you drive from Mfolozi to Mtubatuba, you can smell the sadness in the air
Illustrative image: (Photos: Rob Symons | Gallo Images / Misha Jordaan | Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Russell Roberts)

While the climate impacts of burning coal are well documented, a lesser-told story is the misery endured by communities forced to accommodate new coal mines as neighbours. Banks which finance these mines are complicit.

COP28 is just around the corner. It comes at the end of a year of unprecedented climate disasters throughout the globe, with an estimated cost of more than $57.6-billion. 

The urgency to act has never been greater. 

Yet there is little optimism for any significant and binding resolutions to come out of this process.

The fact that a major oil-producing nation (United Arab Emirates) is hosting the conference already suggests that this COP will follow the trend of allowing those with a deeply vested interest in sustaining fossil fuels to dominate the agenda.

As our political leaders consistently fail to act, it is clear that the action of civil society is critical to drive a just transition from fossil fuels to renewables before it is too late to avert catastrophic climate breakdown. 

An important arena of civic action is the drive to expose banks which finance fossil fuels and to encourage disinvestment in fossil fuel expansion.

Many of our local banks claim a commitment to a clean environment and to transitioning from fossil fuels – but their investments don’t live up to this. 

Standard Bank, for example, states that they “have the opportunity to play a leading role in supporting a just energy transition for Africa” and yet they have come under fire for increasing their investments in fossil fuels, financing the East Africa Oil Pipeline, and using undue force on protesting climate activists and journalists covering the issue.

Nedbank has long built its brand on the premise of being the “green and caring bank”. But their brand is contradicted by where they are putting their money. While they must be commended for undertaking not to provide project financing for new thermal coal mines, regardless of jurisdiction from 1 January 2025, they continue to fund fossil fuel enterprises, including Petmin – one of the key players in South Africa’s coal industry.

Petmin claims to be the biggest miner of anthracite – a high-heat burner with an even higher carbon footprint than bituminous coal – and is also the owner of Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd which has been operating the controversial open-cast Somkhele Coal Mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal since 2007.

The devastating impacts of climate change are reason enough not to invest in fossil fuels. But coal mining also brings other injustices – and, as one of the players enabling the expansion of coal mining, Nedbank needs to take some responsibility. The story of the Somkhele community illustrates this clearly.

Nedbank has directly contributed well above R300-million to the expansion of Petmin’s operations in the uMfolozi district, including loans made in 2023. (See Nedbank Capital Expenditure Project Listing 1 January 1993 to December 2019, published 2020; and Tendele’s answering affidavit in Mcejo & Others v Tendele & Others Urgent Interdict Application (2023), p748.)

Standard Bank has also provided loans for the mining operation.

As the following review of the social and environmental impacts of these operations clearly shows, this investment flies in the face of Nedbank’s claim to be a green and caring bank.

‘If I was once a garage, I am now a scrapyard’

Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd has been operating the open-cast Somkhele Coal Mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal since 2007. Located on Ingonyama Trust land, the mine has gouged out a huge swathe of land between the N2 and the Hluhluwe/Imfolozi Park. The original mine was later extended to include KwaQubuka and Luhlanga.

In 2016, Tendele sought to extend its mining rights as the Somkhele mine’s life span was coming to an end. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) granted them rights to another 212km². In response to legal action contesting the legitimacy of this, Tendele agreed to abandon its mining right to much of the area and has focused on expanding its operations into nearby Ophondweni, Emalahleni and Mahujini – a total area of 17.66km².

In the same year, residents near the Somkhele mine joined the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo) which had successfully opposed the planned Fuleni coal mine on the border of the Hluhluwe/Imfolozi Park.

The Somkhele community had several grievances with the mine, which they took to the DMRE. These included blasting, cracked houses, polluted drinking water, dried-up water resources, unlawful and insensitive exhumation of ancestral graves, loss of livestock, grazing land and fields.

The promised jobs had been awarded to only a few, and little or no compensation had been given for loss and damages caused by mining operations. Because of their experience with the first mine, the community also wished to challenge the proposed extension.

In 2017, Mcejo members launched their first court application in the KwaZulu-Natal Division of the High Court in Pietermaritzburg to interdict the operation of the mine until Tendele had lawfully obtained the required environmental licences. The court action established that Tendele had no authorisation under the 2014 National Environmental Management Act (Nema) to operate.

Tendele contended that such authorisation was unnecessary, as, prior to 2014, authorisation was granted by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002. Although it might seem obvious that ongoing mining operations should comply with the current legislation, the court found in favour of Tendele.

Represented by Kirsten Youens and Janice Tooley at All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice, Mcejo then appealed to Minister Gwede Mantashe to withdraw the rights granted to Tendele in 2016 on the basis that Tendele had not followed lawful procedures when embarking on the mine.

When the minister denied their appeal, Mcejo went to court again.

This case was reviewed in the Gauteng Division of the High Court in Pretoria in November 2021. In a judgment handed down in May 2022, Judge Noluntu Bam found that the Scoping/EIA done in 2013 was unlawful; there was no consent in terms of the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act, and the public participation process was defective.

Her judgment was a damning indictment of Tendele’s failure to comply with regulations, describing Tendele as “misguided in its view”, and stating that its attempt to justify the exclusion of groups required to be consulted by the regulations as part of the public participation was “nothing short of egregious”.

She further ruled that its defective notices had unduly limited the public’s participation; that Tendele “flouted the law with regard to public participation”; that its attitude during the scoping phase was “offensive”; and portrayed Tendele as an “unbridled horse” that showed little or no regard for the law.

Green light to mining

Despite this finding, in July this year, after Mcejo and others brought an urgent interdict to stop Tendele from commencing with mining, Judge Piet Koen discounted Bam’s recommendations and gave the green light to the company to continue with operations in the new areas.

This is despite Tendele not having complied with Nema’s EIA regulations for listed activities such as the removal of indigenous vegetation and the building of roads.

While the legal battle has been waged in the courtroom, on the ground residents have been embroiled in a bitter dispute that has severely impacted on their security, livelihoods, community cohesion and way of life.

There is no doubt that before the mine came, the area had limited resources and employment opportunities. But while materially poor, the community was land wealthy, thanks to the system of land distributed by the Ingonyama Trust.

In the words of Gedenezer Dladla in an affidavit compiled for submission to the UNHCR, “The fields are a bank and wealth that each homestead owns for the current and many generations to come.”

The community invested in the land, tending to it to ensure that it was not overgrazed and using traditional methods to cultivate sustainable crops.

But the fields were not their only “bank”. The residents of the area also invested in their strong ancestral and spiritual connections to the land, connecting with ancestors through tending to gravesites or enacting family and community rituals at their homesteads.

And, most profoundly, they invested in community, with a strong sense of ubuntu enabling resources to be shared and support to be offered. For the families forced to move to make way for the mine, and for those living on its margins, these investments have been destroyed.

The communities currently standing in the way of the mine’s expansion have been more resistant to moving, despite unrelenting intimidation and financial inducements which were larger than the paltry amounts offered to those initially moved.

They have learnt from the bitter experiences of those who went before them that moving means not only losing the land that binds them to their ancestors but also being forced to encroach on neighbouring communities where they are resettled, with reduced access to grazing and fields for cultivation.

They have learnt what it is to live on the borders of an active mine, with blasting several times a week, coal dust, dried rivers, polluted rainwater, and increased respiratory illnesses. They have learnt that the promised social improvements have been scant and that jobs have benefited only a few.

They have paid heavily for their resistance. 


The murder of Mcejo member Fikile Ntshangase in 2020 has been well documented in the media, and it shook the community to its core.

As one resident said, “Losing Ma Fikile Ntshangase finished me and stopped all my happiness.”

Less well known is the widespread ongoing intimidation and harassment experienced by Mcejo members – both those who have refused to sign relocation agreements and those who support them. 

People have experienced multiple death threats, drive-by shootings, rocks thrown at their homes, their houses set alight, mobs descending on them in the night and demanding that they sign, people beaten up at meetings and in their homes. 

Schoolchildren have been given threatening messages to pass on to their parents. Ntshangase’s death gave a chilling weight to these threats.

When some Mcejo members were forced to stay elsewhere because they feared for their lives, the Mpukunyoni Traditional Authority made a resolution that their rights to the land had lapsed as their homes had been “abandoned”, and their homes were to be demolished. The homes were subsequently set alight, even though the authorities were well aware of the reasons that the residents were not staying at home.

Mental effects

Psychologist Dr Garret Barnwell was commissioned by All Rise Attorneys to assess the mental health of those affected by the mine. In his report, he states that 78% of the residents interviewed in Ophondweni and Emalahleni “are experiencing continued traumatic stress reactions owing to the ongoing atmosphere of violence associated with the operation and proposed expansion” of the mine.

He lists some of the consequences of this as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of distressing thoughts or external reminders, heightened anxiety, and changes in mood and thinking patterns.

In the words of one resident, “I don’t know what to do. I have no direction… it is a f**k up. I am dead. Mentally, body-wise, if I was a garage, I am now a scrap yard…”

Barnwell points out the catastrophic impact of collective trauma as it disrupts community relationships, leading to the isolation and alienation of individuals who feel unable to access the same joy or meaning in things they used to (e.g., attending public gatherings, going to funerals, or church).

“Consequently, when that sense of communality is disrupted or destroyed, the individual loses a part of themselves and the emotional and other resources they have invested in their community and place of living to help them during challenging times.”

Gatherings such as church services, funerals and weddings, once a source of joy and meaning, have become contaminated by suspicion, hostility and exclusion. Not only is the community traumatised, but its coping mechanisms are disabled.

He further points out the specific trauma that results from people feeling betrayed by authorities they once trusted to safeguard their interests. These include the Mpukunyoni Traditional Authority; the police and justice system which have failed to find and prosecute Ntshangase’s killers or others guilty of intimidation; the municipal and civic leaders; and the DMRE and government, all of whom have been acting solely in the interests of the mine.

“Before mining, people said they felt listened to and supported by traditional authorities. As with the homestead, traditional customs, laws, values and beliefs were integral to community cohesion. It was explained to me that a significant level of trust was placed in traditional authorities and that they had no problems in the past compared to today.”

In his report, Dr Barnwell asserts that such continuous collective traumatic stress severely impacts people’s capacity to engage meaningfully in public participatory processes and negotiations about relocations. They are in no position to make clear decisions about their best interests.

Paltry public participation efforts

Thus, the public participation efforts undertaken by the mine and the government, apart from being utterly inadequate in terms of the procedures followed, are gravely undermined by the atmosphere of fear, violence and intimidation.

Such conflicting interests would make the situation difficult to manage under any circumstances. 

But Tendele has fuelled tensions in the area by circulating letters claiming that workers will lose their jobs unless everyone agrees to move to make way for the mine extensions, accusing those who will not move of standing in the way of development, and naming community activists who they claim are threatening the livelihoods of those directly or indirectly employed by the mine.

People were transported by a mine employee to disrupt a Mcejo meeting and to physically assault and threaten the attendees. Mine employees have made direct threats to community members.

Tendele has consistently argued that it is bringing substantial economic benefits to the area and local Mtubatuba, citing employment figures of up to 1,500, although many of these refer to contracts for coal transporters, taxi drivers and other service providers, rather than those directly employed by the mine.

However, the mine is not the only major employer in the Mtubatuba area – the sugar industry, and nearby iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park provide over 13,000 jobs between them, and there is also significant forestry and farming of macadamia. 

Unlike the mining jobs, these are sustainable long-term employment opportunities which do not destroy livelihoods and the arability of the land.

The proposed extensions are necessary to sustain the jobs already created by Tendele. There are no new employment opportunities to offer those sacrificing their land and livelihood. In a few years, this mine, too, will be exhausted.

Damage mitigation

Many of Tendele’s much-vaunted social projects are merely to mitigate damage done by the mining operations. It boasts of establishing more than 21 water points to supply potable water to benefit more than 2,000 people in Mpukunyoni.

But people only need these water points because they can no longer access clean rainwater due to coal dust or water from the rivers and streams as a direct result of the mine.

The water points Tendele has provided are insufficient to mitigate the loss of clean water as a consequence of Tendele’s extraction of water from the Umfolozi River and groundwater, lowering the groundwater resources which are critical for the community in times of drought.

In its most recent environmental audit, dated August 2023, the auditor acknowledged that Tendele has never audited its resettlement process to date; that there are families who have been relocated who are worse off; that there are families still living within the mining areas unacceptably close to the mining operations; that some families have never been compensated for their loss of land and inability to farm as a result; and that the mental health of people has been significantly affected.

It has been argued that the anthracite mined at Tendele is critical for South Africa’s ferrochrome producers. It may be debatable whether the benefits outweigh the costs, but even if one accepts that these mines are a “necessary evil”, the absolute minimum the affected community deserves is adequate compensation – not only to those who have to move but also to those living on the edges of the mine.

It deserves adequate transparent community participation processes with honest and impartial brokers representing community interests; a well-developed resettlement plan which secures the futures of those moved; a transition plan which takes into account what will happen to the workers and service providers when the mine closes; an environmental impact assessment compliant with current legislation; and a fully funded guaranteed rehabilitation plan for the mine post closure.

Failure to provide these has led directly to the criminality, violence and community breakdown we can see today.

Further, Tendele has argued that it needs to expand the mine to service its debt – were Tendele to undertake the necessary procedural steps to be fully compliant with Nema and Ilpra and other legislation, it seems unlikely that the mine would cover the debt or be profitable.

A mine that relies on non-compliance to be viable is a liability to investors, as well as to the community.

The area between iSimangaliso Wetlands Park and the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Park could be a flagship project promoting sustainable agriculture, sustainable tourism and sustainable conservation projects. Instead, it is rapidly becoming an eyesore as the mine inflicts deep wounds on its land and its people.

In the words of a nearby resident, “Coal mining brings more tears than wealth. If you drive from iMfolozi to Mtubatuba, through the mine-affected communities, you can smell the sadness.”

It is a deep injustice to demand that communities sacrifice so much to produce a fuel which cannot be part of any liveable future, as scientists and economists have reiterated time and again – especially as their sacrifices will make them less resilient and far more vulnerable to climate disasters caused by burning that fuel.

Financial institutions such as Standard Bank and Nedbank need to redirect their investments to projects that truly benefit the community and do not imperil the future of our land and nation. 

To live up to their brand as caring banks, these and other financial institutions need to shift their investments to build a liveable future for all of South Africa’s people. DM

Bridget Pitt has published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and four novels. Her non-fiction work includes co-authoring Black Lion, the memoir of Sicelo Mbatha, a spiritual wilderness guide. Her latest novel, Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press 2023), explores the social and ecological impacts of colonialism in South Africa. Pitt is a campaigner for social and environmental justice and has written on environmental issues in various journals and collections and in Daily Maverick. She lives in Cape Town.

Sarah Robyn Farrell fulfils a multiplicity of roles in the climate justice space, including divestment campaigner at Fossil Free South Africa. She is a writer and musician too.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Suzanne Grobler says:

    Maybe the air of hopelessness is because more than 1200 people lost their jobs due to the mass retrenchment at the mine. The problem that I have with this article (as with all the other articles about Tendele Mine) is that it is one sided. There never has been an article where employees who were retrenched, were interviewed on the impact of the retrenchment, neither an article where Tendele could put their views across. Just for the record, people who were relocated received more than market related compensation for their land and homesteads. Such information would be available if the journalists were interested in getting all the facts. Also, Judge Bam had all these comments, yet she did NOT revoke the mining license- so one should not be too happy about her comments. Also, maybe the DM should investigate where the funding is coming from for lawyers such as All Rise – they are funded by foundations from companies with atrocious environmental records – remember the pollution in the Mexican gulf and motor industries with not so clean pollution legacies. Lastly, there is no economic development in this area. As you say, 13000 people work at Smangaliso Wetland Park, KZN Wildlife, the sugar mill and farmers, but there are more than 250000 people living in this area – so how should they live? If you travel from Mtuba to the park, there is very few areas available where you can farm – and research the Ingonyama Trust as well – only the king benefits from it. Money is made for the trust be leasing out land – please report objectively, then it may have a bigger impact.

  • Dear Daily Maverick Editor,

    This article unfortunately lacks journalistic integrity – something extremely unusual for the Daily Maverick.

    It is filled with allegations, lacking substantial proof.

    I propose that Daily Maverick conducts investigative work, revealing that Mcejo has lost six consecutive court attempts to close the Tendele mine.

    All Rise, representing Mcejo in all 6 court cases, allegedly acts pro bono, but recent social media articles suggest foreign funding are being used by All Rise in its efforts to close South African mines.

    Recognizing Daily Maverick’s advocacy for believing in the rule of law – and venting issues in court, I propose an investigation into the thousands of court papers on the Tendele matter.

    A senior judge in Maritzburg found against Mcejo, stating they “have used a scattergun approach and sadly missed the target at all times,” echoing my own sentiments applicable to this article.

    An even more senior judge in the appeal court, and the sole discerning judge (as four out of five judges favored Tendele) indicated that he would never “close the mine” due to its economic impact, allowing rectification of past mistakes.

    In his minority judgment, he lists all the economic benefits that the Mine has brought to the community, including some R2.7 billion in salaries , procurement and social and Labour plan benefits, and noting that some 20,000 people has been trained by the mine in the community.

    One should understand the above in the context of a community with some 83% of my fellow community members being unemployed, and with the average monthly household income for a family is less than R 1500.

    Tendele mine aligns with directives from Judges Koen and Bam, Is currently engaging in a detailed public participation process in our community to address environmental report deficiencies.

    Despite some serious allegations, no community member, Traditional Council, or Num or Amcu representative have been approached.

    I have furthermore, personally noted many invitations from community leaders, to engaged with Mcejo and their advisors, and sadly, all attempts to meet has been totally rejected.

    One would’ve thought that the lessons learned from Mandela and others, that all conflicts can be resolved with dialogue.

    It appears that this philosophy is not being understood by the mines proponents mentioned in your article ( and maybe also not by the freelance reporter as there has been no dialogue when this painful article was written).

    This article seems a propaganda ploy; the motive remains unclear.

    Following a recent public participation meeting, many Mcejo members expressed a desire for the mine’s survival, citing its economic benefits outweighing negatives.

    It seems someone aims to discredit the mine and its funders, possibly using Daily Maverick as a propaganda tool.

    The mine, directly and indirectly employing 1600 people for ten years, aligns with South Africa’s top goal of ensuring employment.

    Financial institutions supporting its survival should not be faulted.

    Is “just transition” merely a word, while our community continues to suffer in practice?

    We appreciate financial institutions’ wisdom and continued support, crucial for our community’s survival.

    I urge Daily Maverick to present the other side of the story.

    Our community, with 200 000 people, heavily depends on the mine’s survival.

    I suggest Daily Maverick consults the mayor of Mathuba, the traditional council, other community leaders, and WSP the independent grouping overseeing the public participation process.

    WSP, will furthermore inform you that more than 90% of the community has voted in independant elections for the survival for the mine.

    Believing Daily Maverick plays a vital role in rooting out corruption in South Africa and be one of the leading lights for the truth , I urge them to gather facts before publishing one-sided stories.

    A very concerning community member, as I do want to see the survival of the mine as it will change the lives of thousands of people.

  • I have been to Mpukunyoni on numerous occasion’s and am very fond of the Daily Maverick publications as they are normally factual , but controversial . You recently published an article which was written by two individuals , whom I believe are not journalists and the article reflects that.The article seems to be very one sided ,seemingly written on behalf of the env activists whom have been opposing mining for the past 6 years. The Legal team called Allrise is said to represent an organisation called Mcejo which does not represent the 20000 Mpukunyoni community members . This fact has been made clear on more than one occasion by the local tribal community leaders as well as the elected political leaders .Yet these outsiders , externally funded, continue to find legal loopholes to inhibit progress to the the extend that the mine has now run out of new mining areas. Retrenching more than a 1000 employees .To my knowledge, Allrise has lost 6 court cases to date , has not done any community work (not a single bore hole) but represents an organisation called Mcejo who claim to represent the local people. From the article it makes mention of “research” done on community mental wellness, the question is how big was the sample group and do they really represent the 20000 community members ?
    There is no rational to stop one of the single biggest generators of funds in this community. Constant mention is made of agriculture and water deprivation of the mine .In travelling to the game reserve for more than 15 years , I am yet to see this agriculture ….sugar cane and commercial trees which are normal planted by organisations is also absent in this community . Apparently it does not grow in the soil which is present in the area . This is why they have a lot of grazing land and people tend to stick to cattle and goats. Surely there are rainfall records of the past 30 years . I would appeal to the DM to actually go to this rural area , talk to the community and republish this article . Please critically look at the published article and verify items which are factual and which are fictional .This community does not deserve propaganda driven by an agenda which will ultimate lead to their suppression.

  • Please this one sided article of pages of non truths is nearly propoganda quantifying, no support for the writers. Just like after WW2 millions was pumped into Japan. I was expecting MCEJO to start to help us. But as they don’t represent this community, we know that there’s no support coming from them. Instead their focus had shifted to Standard Bank, Nedbank, and the new mines that will come into KZN.
    If you do not live in Mpukunyoni, do not publish which is not a true reflection of what has happened here in the past 8 years here.

  • Cao’s in progress.
    Years ago before the mine started in 2007, we had faction fights in the area, the mine brought stability.
    With its closing, cao’s has started again and pretty soon the criminal element will start again in fact it has started.
    Environmental activists are blamed for allowing crime to return to this community.

  • Nhlahla Mkhwanazi says:

    Nowhere in the world would allow outsiders to go into a community to divide them. Allrise accuse the legislators, politicians of not doing their work but in reality they cannot accept that they have not received a favourable outcome from the 6 court cases over the past years. There is really no need to attack nedbank and stand bank as they are not the one closing down the mine. Please accept the fact that you do not represent us and unless you want to help us rather leave the mine alone. DM please check the facts next time before you publish them.

  • Youth Mtubatuba says:

    First, we had an apartheid, now we get a new world order of suppression, externally funded NGO’s have for years now tried to put us in an economic type of slavery by denying us the opportunity to live, free from poverty.
    Tendele Coal Mining has over the years made some faults, but the good things they have done far outweigh way the bad. MCEJO does not represent the community of Mpukunyoni. Infact they have not even had the decency to formally introduce themselves to our leadership (Inkosi Mkhwanazi). I do not expect them to believe in an Inkosi (not being rural) but at least follow Zulu protocol. The authors cannot quote terms like UBUNTU when they do not understand the rural day to day socio-economic issues we face.

    On the 22 October 2023 a freak of nature caused havoc in the area, roofs were blown off. This disaster received no news coverage by the press in general DM as a pro environmental paper made absolutely no mention of it. Similarly, MCEJO and other non-local environmentalist have not given anything back to our community. (Not even planted a single tree in the past 6 years.)

    The question is, do they really care about our community?
    They are busy with propaganda that cause friction and they post onesided story.

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

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
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