Mine leaves farm­ers in the dust

A pas­toral com­mu­nity near Hluh­luwe-im­folozi Park is be­ing turned into a ver­i­ta­ble dump

Mail & Guardian - - News - Lu­cas Led­waba

Ev­ery morn­ing Siphamandla Nkosi is greeted by the grim sight of grey mine dumps that tower into the sky about 500m from his peach-painted homestead perched on a hill in Nkolokotho in Kwazu­lunatal. “I’m dis­turbed spir­i­tu­ally when I see those mine dumps,” Nkosi says with a shrug.

In a dif­fer­ent time, be­fore the scram­ble for min­er­als turned the earth here up­side down, he had a dif­fer­ent view: tract upon tract of sug­ar­cane and maize fields along­side home­steads that dot­ted the land­scape as far as the eye could see.

Nkosi re­mem­bers how, as boys, he and his friends herded cat­tle and ran in the fields down there where the mine dumps keep ris­ing. Then, there were about 50 house­holds. Now there are none.

“We can no longer keep cat­tle. Peo­ple are sickly and the blast­ing from the mine is caus­ing a lot of dust. There is a lot of noise and dust and the en­vi­ron­ment has been dis­turbed. The mine brought us noth­ing good. That is why we en­gaged a lawyer to fight for us,” he laments.

In an ef­fort to save what re­mains of their land and re­tain their tra­di­tional way of life, the com­mu­nity has been in­volved in a lengthy le­gal bat­tle with Ten­dele Coal Min­ing Pty (Ltd), which owns the Somkhele Mine.

Or­gan­ised un­der the Mfolozi Com­mu­nity En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Or­gan­i­sa­tion, which rep­re­sents 4000 peo­ple from 10 vil­lages in the Somkhele area, res­i­dents are ap­peal­ing a re­cent high court de­ci­sion turn­ing down their ap­pli­ca­tion to in­ter­dict Ten­dele from con­tin­u­ing its min­ing op­er­a­tions.

In their ap­pli­ca­tion be­fore the high court in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, the Somkhele res­i­dents ac­cused Ten­dele of vi­o­lat­ing their en­vi­ron­men­tal, land and tra­di­tional rights, and said its op­er­a­tions con­tam­i­nate wa­ter re­sources and neg­a­tively af­fect their way of life, which is based on crop and stock farm­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to ev­i­dence sub­mit­ted to the court, Somkhele has more than 50% of all open-pit mine­able an­thracite re­serves in the coun­try. Ten­dele is the prin­ci­pal sup­plier of an­thracite and sells 730000 tonnes a year to lo­cal fer­rochrome pro­duc­ers.

The com­mu­nity’s lawyer, Kirsten Youens, says they are lodg­ing an ap­peal with the Supreme Court of Ap­peal af­ter Judge Rishi See­gobin dis­missed their ap­pli­ca­tion with costs last month. See­gobin found the ap­pli­cants had not pre­sented a proper case and that they ap­peared to have adopted a scat­ter­gun ap­proach, hop­ing to hit one tar­get or an­other.

But, while the wheels of jus­tice grind slowly, res­i­dents like Zepha­nia Gina con­tinue to face the daily ef­fects brought about by min­ing.

He stands on the ruins of what was once his parental homestead where he was born 72 years ago. Over­look­ing the dumps in the north, pieces of ce­ment bricks and por­tions of broken walls lie half-buried at his feet — in the soil mat­ted with green grass just sprout­ing af­ter re­cent rains.

“We had milk and meat. We had land. We had ev­ery­thing. Now we are beg­gars,” says Gina, look­ing across to the dumps.

Gina’s homestead, which was lo­cated fur­ther down from Nkosi’s, was de­mol­ished to make way for the Ten­dele Coal Mine in 2008. His parental homestead met the same fate. He has built an­other home about 1.5km south of the orig­i­nal.

The fam­ily ceme­tery, where 27 of his kin, in­clud­ing his par­ents, five chil­dren, sis­ters and broth­ers lie buried, is fenced off not far from the ruins. He is wor­ried the graves are un­der threat.

“When you bury some­one, you need to sac­ri­fice a goat and a cow to ap­pease their spir­its. If you want me to ex­hume them you need to do the same [sac­ri­fice a cow and a goat for each]. But the mine doesn’t want to re­spect our tra­di­tions,” he says.

The ex­huma­tion and re­lo­ca­tion of an­ces­tral graves has been one of the burn­ing is­sues in the bat­tle be­tween Ten­dele and Somkhele res­i­dents, who con­sider tam­per­ing with graves taboo.

In court, Ten­dele ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for pre­vi­ously fail­ing to com­ply with reg­u­la­tions be­fore re­lo­cat­ing graves. In his rul­ing, See­gobin said the com­pany was now work­ing closely with Amafa Kwazulu-na­tal Her­itage Coun­cil to en­sure that any re­lo­ca­tion of graves took place in ac­cor­dance with the law.

The prospect of a lengthy le­gal bat­tle brings no com­fort to res­i­dents like Mbon­geni Gumede. His homestead in Qhubuka lies about 300m from the Somkhele mine op­er­a­tion. The area around it is lit­tered with the ruins of de­stroyed home­steads, tes­ti­mony to the chang­ing times and dy­nam­ics here. All his neigh­bours have ac­cepted Ten­dele’s fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion and left the area.

Gumede re­mains the last man stand­ing in the strug­gle. He believes the R75 000 of­fer al­legedly made by Ten­dele is ridicu­lous.

“We are strug­gling with dust, noise. I was born here and my chil­dren were born here. Eight of our houses have col­lapsed since min­ing started here. Be­fore min­ing [started] we had no such prob­lems,” says Gumede.

He says pro­duce has de­te­ri­o­rated. The leaves on the fruit trees on his prop­erty are caked in black dust.

Plumes of black and red dust ris­ing from un­der­neath the wheels of gi­gan­tic trucks and earth mov­ing ma­chin­ery also land on his roof, fur­ni­ture, clothes and food.

He has to buy wa­ter be­cause the taps have run dry, al­legedly due to the min­ing. The rain­wa­ter they used to har­vest from the roof is no longer drink­able be­cause it is con­tam­i­nated.

Added to this is the con­stant roar of trucks that tra­verse the main road above his homestead and in the min­ing area.

Mine se­cu­rity carry out pa­trols along the barbed wire fence sep­a­rat­ing Gumede’s home from the min­ing area.

“We have asked the mine [Ten­dele] to move us away from here. They re­fused, say­ing we are not in an area des­ig­nated for re­moval. But look at my home now. I live in a ruin be­cause of min­ing. We are all cough­ing in this house [as a re­sult of dust],” says Gumede.

Gumede also lives in fear af­ter he was ha­rassed by un­known gun­men who warned him to “stop mak­ing noise about the mine”.

“If you speak out you could die,” he says about his ter­ri­fy­ing en­counter.

He has given up any hope of lead­ing a nor­mal life as long as he re­mains on this piece of land.

Ten­sions also brew among fam­i­lies, be­tween those who are against and those in support of min­ing. Des­mond Mkhwanazi lives alone in Qhubuka in a two-roomed brick house across the main road to Hluh­luwe and Mtu­batuba, just un­der 1km from the min­ing op­er­a­tion. He had lived with his sib­lings and their chil­dren in their an­ces­tral homestead. But ten­sions arose when the fam­ily was made a fi­nan­cial of­fer to re­lo­cate. They dis­agreed about the mon­e­tary com­pen­sa­tion from the mine, re­sult­ing in him stay­ing alone in his cur­rent home while the oth­ers built else­where and one of his broth­ers ac­cepted a job from the mine.

“The mine has de­stroyed my life. I had a tuck shop, which sup­ported me, and I even man­aged to buy a bakkie for my busi­ness. But, once the mine got here, my goats died and ev­ery­thing got worse,” he says.

He has tried to res­ur­rect the tuck shop on his new prop­erty, but he can­not af­ford to com­plete the out­build­ing needed for his busi­ness.

His fam­ily’s an­ces­tral graves are lo­cated some­where in the mid­dle of the mine dump and he can no longer carry out sa­cred tra­di­tional rites there.

“Where those dunes are now was my home,” he says.

But a judg­ment at the high court Pre­to­ria last month has given com­mu­ni­ties like Somkhele some hope. In a case be­tween the Amadiba Cri­sis Com­mit­tee and the Aus­tralian com­pany Transworld En­ergy and Min­eral Re­sources, Judge An­nali Bas­son ruled that the min­eral re­sources min­is­ter must ob­tain con­sent from the com­mu­nity, as the holder of rights on land, prior to grant­ing any min­ing right.

She said, although the in­for­mal rights of cus­tom­ary com­mu­ni­ties were pre­vi­ously not pro­tected by law, the com­mu­nity now has the right to de­cide what hap­pens with their land. Amadiba had lodged an ap­pli­ca­tion to ask the court to give the com­mu­nity the right to say no to min­ing in their area.

The judg­ment may set a prece­dent so that com­mu­ni­ties like Somkhele have a say in how they want to use their land in the fu­ture.

But, un­til then, res­i­dents like Nokuthula Buthelezi con­tinue to bat­tle the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of min­ing.

A thick layer of black silt forms at the bot­tom of the white wa­ter tank placed at the cor­ner of a house in her large homestead some 9km away from the min­ing op­er­a­tion.

“We can no longer drink this,” pour­ing the wa­ter into a bucket to demon­strate just how pol­luted it is. Although she lives far from the mine, the dust from the op­er­a­tion cov­ers the roof of her home. Her goats have runny noses and give birth to stillborn kids. Her cat­tle also ap­pear to have res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases.

“Have you ever heard of a cow cough­ing like a hu­man be­ing? This is what is hap­pen­ing here since this min­ing be­gan. We are all go­ing to end up like that,” she says. — Muku­rukuru Me­dia

Ru­ined: Zepha­nia Gina, 72, shows where the homestead where he was born once stood

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