‘Coal communities’ band together against ‘company abuses’.
By Chelsea Pieterse
The struggle for the environment and a better future was the focus of a meeting in Northern KwaZulu-Natal of communities from all over the country who have been affected by coal mining operations.
A national coal communities exchange organised by Pietermaritzburg-based environmental group groundWork, and the Mtubatuba and Kwambonambi communities, hosted communities from the different coal fields in South Africa.
They met “at the heart of KZN’s” coal struggle to exchange information and experiences and build solidarity.
The battle between coal companies Petmin Coal and Ibutho Coal, and the Somkhele and Fuleni community has a long, controversial history that includes claims of attacks and threats on community activists.
The meeting, which started last Wednesday and ended on Friday, discussed the problems that the communities face regarding their health and the environment.
A statement by groundWork said that over 10 years ago, Petmin coal mine, also known as Tendele’s Somkhele coal mine, was developed with the “promise” of employment.
It said within the same area, the Fuleni community was fighting against the Ibutho coal mine being established, as it would lie on the border of the Hluhluwe/Mfolozi Game Reserve.
Speaking to The Witness on Friday, Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation co-ordinator Phila Ndimande said the meeting had been a success and motivated community members to take a stronger stance against the mining industry.
“Enough is enough. We all decided at the meeting that we would be making bigger moves to stop the mine from being established,” he said.
He said community activists would arranged a meeting with the South African Human Rights Commission with a focus on the area’s climate, the environment and the health of the community.
He said the Fuleni community had watched what was happening to the Somkhele community “across the river” and had felt the impact.
“There is a mine that exists across the river and from our community, we can feel the impact within the air and the environment,” he said.
Ndimande said people were falling ill and having trouble breathing in the Fuleni community although the mine was across the river.
Ibutho Mine communications did not respond to the media query sent by The Witness over the weekend.
The groundWork statement said at least one activist from each of the mining affected communities had been threatened by their local traditional authority or mine management.
“From a truck being torched in the middle of the night after a protest in Somkhele, to a woman being beaten up after a meeting in Ermelo, these are the realities community members face when standing up for their constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being,” said the statement.
Comments from “a leading activist” from the Mpukunyoni Community Property Association in the Somkhele community included that he would not be named as he “lives in fear for his life”.
“The community lived well with the environment and each other before the mine began operations; thereafter, the community has experienced violence, unfulfilled promises of a better life, the destruction of their sustainable livelihoods, and an environment that has undergone irreparable damage.”
Tendele Coal Mining chief operating officer Jarmi Steyn said that Tendele (Petmin) did not attend the community consultations in Somkhele last week, but they have a “constructive relationship” with community structures and tribal leadership.
“This community actually owns 20% of the mine following a landmark agreement signed in 2015,” said Rees.
“Tendele is participating in the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) hearings into socio-economic challenges in mining-affected communities, and has provided large amounts of information in response to SAHRC requests.
“We expect to be presenting to the hearings this week.
“It is our understanding that some people who claim to represent the wider community are representing only their own interests,” he said.
“There are 175 000 people living in the wider Mpukunyoni community around the mine, and there is a very high demand for jobs.
“We employ more than 950 local people, but can obviously not employ them all.
“Over the last 10 years since the mine has been in operation, it has directly or indirectly invested some R933 million into the local community.
“With regard to allegations of intimidation, we request that any incidents be reported to the police and to the mine,” said Rees.
He said that Tendele operates within the guidelines set by national legislation and all employees underwent an annual medical surveillance exam.
He added that Tendele has provided boreholes with hand pumps and has repaired others on behalf of the municipality.
This article appeared in the Witness on September 26, 2016.