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Somkhele: Time to phase out the destruction by mining in KwaZulu-Natal and turn to job creation


Mary de Haas is a violence monitor and analyst.

Somkhele and nearby Fuleni would be ideal places to start phasing out coal mining and replacing it with sustainable job creation. Its situation near game reserves renders it perfect for creating jobs in tourism and environmental work. It is also an area of huge historical significance as a site of struggles which shaped the historic Zulu kingdom.

A 40-year-old report on soils and land use in the neighbouring Mpukunyoni and Nhlana Traditional Authority areas in northern KwaZulu-Natal extols their suitability for agriculture. However, in these areas, adjacent to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Parks and the oldest proclaimed wilderness area in Africa, such development did not materialise, for in 2007 Petmin’s Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd started its open-cast operations in Somkhele, Mpukunyoni.

Since 2014 the threat of coal mining has also been hanging over the heads of Nhlana’s Fuleni residents. Since the Somkhele operations started, mining has moved to new villages, displacing over a hundred families from land they have occupied for generations.

The expansion drive to displace yet more families from Ophondweni – which led to the assassination of community leader Mam’ Fikile Ntshangase – is but one manifestation of the social and environmental degradation caused by this mining. As long as profit for relatively few is put before the quality of life of thousands of people and their environment, the mine will carry on moving to, and ruining, new areas.

By fiddling with coal while the planet burns, the government shows utter contempt for the most basic of human rights to water, food security, safety, health and a clean environment. Mining does not alleviate poverty – rather, it entrenches inequality. What these areas need is true, community-driven development, utilising all the environmental, agricultural and tourism potential of the area it is part of.

Mining activities bring conflict, for only a select few benefit from what are generally low-grade jobs, the security of which relies on the vagaries of international markets. Even coal truck operators are reportedly not locals.

In 2017, as the full impact of the mining operations, including broken promises about employment and training, were felt, opposition to the mining increased. It was countered by the tactics of an informal coalition in which mine management, traditional leadership and provincial government played different roles. The traditional leadership – which contributes to the prevailing climate of intense fear – claims, erroneously, that it owns the land. Legal rights to live on the land are vested in residents through the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights legislation, and the Ingonyama Trust merely holds such areas in trust.

The tactics used against community leaders and families refusing to relocate range from threats (including anonymous phone calls), overt intimidation, malicious damage to property/arson attacks and, in collusion with local police, malicious arrests (over 70 in 2017).

Disinformation has also been used against applicants in two high court cases, the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) and the Global Environmental Trust (GET), which are challenging the mine’s expansion. They are accused of causing unemployment if the mine is forced to close because it cannot expand – an obvious recipe for intracommunity strife.

This campaign has been stepped up since 2019 when planned expansion to Ophondweni and surrounds was thwarted by some families refusing to move. This year, 2020, saw increased death threats (including to 14 women), shooting around homes at night, and attempted murder. In May, in a particularly devious move, elderly people in a remote area were served with hundreds of pages of documents (in English) by the mine’s lawyers, ordering them to appear in court in Pietermaritzburg in June. Stress levels among these elderly folks soared (locals claimed stress was a factor in two earlier deaths). After their lawyer intervened, the planned action was withdrawn.

Weeks before Mrs Ntshangase was killed, some members of the MCEJO had been seduced by financial inducements to sign a supposed agreement that the court case about the mine’s expansion, set down for 2021, would be withdrawn. They had no power to do so on behalf of the MCEJO, their membership was suspended, and they joined in the violent campaign against their erstwhile colleagues.

After Mrs Ntshangase stood firm against them and refused to be part of their dirty deals, she was brutally gunned down. Already traumatised people are terrified when darkness descends, On 22 November the Ntshangase’s dog died of suspected poisoning.

Mining affects the whole community. Houses near the operations are cracked and there is no compensation. Pollution, including from coal dust, is a violation of human rights. In Somkhele it is linked to an explosion of respiratory illnesses and deaths (the threat of Covid-19 pales into insignificance).

Fearing for their children’s health, some families send them to school elsewhere. Heritage laws regarding ancestral graves are ignored. Large areas of precious cultivated farmland have been lost and nutritional levels have suffered. Worst of all is the community’s loss of water. Coal needs huge quantities of water for washing and access to the Umfolozi River has been fenced off. The streams people formerly relied on have dried up, and the mine reportedly uses precious groundwater. Rainwater storage tanks are polluted with coal dust so water for drinking must be boiled, and electricity is expensive.

Women, especially, suffer, since they must find ways to procure water, even if it means walking for hours and risking sexual assault. WoMin, a proactive women’s group, did its own research and its report “No Longer a Life Worth Living” sums up their hardships. Taps are dry and whole areas are without water, even from tankers, despite ongoing appeals to the local and district municipalities. In July, 29 women protesting with their buckets were arrested and spent nine days in prison.

The plight of people living near the Zululand Anthracite Colliery in Nongoma is the same as that of Somkhele area residents. It is utterly iniquitous that thousands of people, and the environment, should suffer grievously so that relatively few can make a profit from a fossil fuel that is the biggest driver of global heating, that other countries are phasing out and disinvesting from.

Even with Covid-19, carbon dioxide emissions have risen in 2020, and South Africa contributes more than its fair share. The government seems impervious to scientific warnings that the planet has a decade to reduce emissions. It continues, and intends expanding, coal extraction, using it for 85% of its electricity generation, and exporting it. By rationalising its policy as providing employment, it ignores the fact that renewables do a far better job. Europe’s biggest economy, Germany, while reducing its reliance on coal, created 400,000 jobs in renewables in a decade. They now provide 46% of its energy needs. South Africa, with its huge solar and wind potential, manages a measly 6%.

Somkhele areas and nearby Fuleni would be ideal places to start phasing out coal mining and replacing it with sustainable job creation. Instead of expanding, Tendele would need to rehabilitate all the damaged areas. Intensive work on restoring soil fertility would allow the return of agriculture – including fruit for export – and its situation near game reserves renders it perfect for creating jobs in tourism and environmental work (clean water, anti-poaching activities, game and wilderness guides).

It is also an area of huge historical significance, a site of struggles which shaped the historic Zulu kingdom, and affordable local accommodation would assist tourism, including local. Its location renders it ideal for healing through the wilderness experience – a crucial factor in mental health – and educational youth camps. It could be a venue for those gathering to document their clan histories, and recording indigenous knowledge among elderly people, while promoting the considerable local musical, artistic, and performance talent.

This should be the goal to lobby for and work towards, but the first step is phasing out mining and restoring land and water rights. Global heating is likely to make South Africa – already running out of water – hotter and drier. There is no time to lose. DM

Note: This piece draws on a large body of data compiled by the lawyers for the MCEJO and GET, Youens Attorneys and Sheila Berry, representing GET, as well as numerous reports from locals and my own involvement in their security-related issues. The soils report was prepared for the then-Natal Bureau of Natural Resources. References for figures about energy and global warming include numerous media and web reports and Klein, N 2019: ‘On Fire : The burning case for a new Green Deal’.


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