Mail & Guardian

‘Coal is South Africa’s past, not its future’

- Sheree Bega

The high court in Pretoria has issued an interdict preventing a coal-mining company from starting operations at its controvers­ial coal mine in the Enkangala-drakensber­g strategic water source area near Wakkerstro­om in Mpumalanga.

Uthaka Energy, formerly Athaafrica Ventures, had been due to hold a breaking-ground ceremony on 24 March to celebrate the start of its planned Yzermyn undergroun­d colliery, with Mpumalanga premier Refilwe Maria Mtshweni-tsipane as the chief guest.

The Mail & Guardian has previously reported on fears that the way had been cleared for the company, which has been linked to former president Jacob Zuma’s relatives, to mine for coal in the ecological­ly-sensitive area, which is home to high-altitude grasslands, highly sensitive wetlands and pans that support endemic plant, bird and animal species, as well as unique and endangered ecosystems.

On 5 March, a coalition of civil society organisati­ons, which has worked since 2015 to reverse legal approvals for the planned mine, brought an interdict applicatio­n after Uthaka Energy gave notice of its intention to begin mining activities.

The coalition had asked the court to order Uthaka Energy to halt commenceme­nt until its other pending legal proceeding­s have been determined.

The coalition says it is relieved that the court on 23 March granted a reprieve to allow proper judicial assessment of the legal proceeding­s under way “before environmen­tal harm is caused”.

Protecting strategic water source areas is crucial for South Africa’s water security, and for their ability to provide water for people and for the country’s economic activity, it says.

The coalition, which is represente­d by the Centre for Environmen­tal Rights (CER), includes several local environmen­tal NGOS.

The proposed mining area fell within the Mabola protected environmen­t, a biodiversi­ty-rich protected area declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014, which means commercial mining could go ahead only with the joint permission of the environmen­t and minerals ministers.

But in January this year, Mpumalanga’s agricultur­e and environmen­t MEC Vusi Shongwe revoked protected area status to allow the proposed mine to proceed without those permission­s “to ensure balance towards the use of natural resources for socioecono­mic benefits”.

The court’s order prevents and restrains Uthaka from “conducting any mining activities and miningrela­ted operations … save for survey pegging of the surface infrastruc­ture boundary and wetlands demarcatio­n pegging of the approved plan”.

Strategic water source areas consist of the 22 water factories that produce half the country’s fresh water, despite comprising just 10% of land area.

“Coal is South Africa’s past, not its future,” said Bobby Peek, the director of coalition partner groundwork.

Praveer Tripathi, of Uthaka Energy, said while it has no comment at this moment on the interdict granted, “Uthaka shares the concerns of the entire mining industry and South African businesses on the implicatio­ns of this interdict on the new investment­s including direct foreign investment­s into the South African economy as well as the adverse impact on job creation. These concerns are no longer limited to the interdict against Uthaka Energy but reach out adversely to the entire economy, whether these consequenc­es were foreseen or unintended.”

He said it would consider its options once the reasons for the order are provided on 30 March 2021.

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