The earth that burns

2013-02-17 10:00

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Life is a constant hazard for those living on eMalahleni’s smouldering coal fields. Sizwe sama Yende spoke to the community.

Three-year-old Mahlatse Ramushu cried hysterically and ran away from his mother, Selina Ntuli, when she asked him to show City Press the spot where his foot sank and got burned.

“He hasn’t forgotten. This is where he was burned,” Ntuli (34) said, pointing at a darkened area of clay soil.

The boy put up a strong fight to avoid coming near that spot, and won.

This is Coronation informal settlement near eMalahleni in Mpumalanga. Residents here literally tread on dangerous ground every day.

The settlement is situated on the disused Coronation Mine, which was never rehabilitated and the remaining coal underground has been smouldering for years, baking the subsiding surface.

When walking there, one’s feet suddenly feel warmer because of the high temperatures.

A man-made mountain of coal dust – pitted with holes from the squatters’ scramble for coal to use for fire for their braziers – overlooks the shanty town.

Mahlatse is just one of many who have been burned by stepping into sinkholes. He was injured while playing there last August.

He was lucky though. Some have died.

But statistics on the numbers of those killed and injured have not been kept.

Eight-year-old Lindokuhle Makola was also burned while playing with her friends, and, like Mahlatse, she has stopped going close to the “mountain”.

Pearl Nobela (20) said she was burned last September when she was walking to visit a friend on the other side of the dump.

“I arrived in Coronation from Bushbuckridge last year August.

“I didn’t know it was burning underground. I walked into the hole while carrying my baby on my back,” she said.

The abandoned coal mine is now the bitter inheritance of the eMalahleni Local Municipality.

And the Sizanani informal settlement is also situated on top of it.

Other squatter camps in this area, such as MNS and Klarinet, also sit on what were once the coal mines of eMalahleni.

The squatters, some of whom come from as far as Mozambique, invaded unoccupied spaces over the past few years to settle closer to Mpumalanga’s second-biggest town in search of jobs.

About 40 000 families live in these informal settlements.

There are 5 858 derelict and ownerless mines in South Africa, which pose a threat to residents living close by.

To rehabilitate them all, the Council for Geoscience estimated eight years ago, would cost government R30 billion.

The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) has only focused on rehabilitating asbestos mines, which cause acute respiratory diseases.

A World Wide Fund for Nature report released last year found that taxpayers would have to dig deep into their pockets for the clean-up and rehabilitation of mines as South African mining companies had not made adequate provision for this.

Matthews Hlabane – an environmental activist who co-ordinates the Southern African Green Revolutionary Council – said the eMalahleni squatter camps were a disaster waiting to happen.

“The shacks might fall into sinkholes as they are sitting on very unstable ground,” he said.

“Families are not sure who to hold accountable for injuries and deaths.”

The eMalahleni councillors are blank and had never taken environmental issues seriously.

“Their disaster management services unit is also not trained to deal with rescuing people who may fall into sinkholes.”

Hlabane said the municipality should establish a unit to deal with abandoned mines and that the DMR should stop being “reckless” by continuing to issue mining licences.

“The council has no plan to relocate the people and matters of rehabilitation have never been part of the council’s agenda,” he adds.

Lindokuhle’s granny, Gladys Makola (61), said she would leave if she had another place to live.

“Government has been promising to build us RDP houses for years, but that has not happened.”

eMalahleni spokesperson Lebohang Mofokeng said they had established an informal settlements committee to deal with mushrooming squatter camps and resettle people in new areas.

“It must be noted however, that the municipality also depends on the allocation of houses by the provincial department of human settlements,” said Mofokeng.

Highveld’s future: ‘total wasteland’

Environmentalists predict the whole of the Mpumalanga Highveld region will be a “total wasteland” in another 50 or 100 years because of the rate at which coal mining is taking place there.

A study by Wits University’s Geosciences department and environmentalist Dr Koos Pretorius warns that the mines will contaminate water, make it undrinkable and kill most aquatic life.

The study also predicts that the heavy salts, which are a byproduct of mining, will sterilise the soil and render what were once highly productive farming lands infertile.

If all prospecting and mining rights in Mpumalanga were approved, 54% of the province’s surface would be mined, which will have dire consequences when mining ceases and the coal reserves have been exploited.

Water in the town of Carolina in the east of the province has already been polluted by mining activities in its catchment areas.

And studies of dams near Middelburg and eMalahleni show rising levels of acid mine drainage problems.

Highveld towns such as Belfast, Ermelo, Piet Retief, Standerton, Bethal, Volksrust, Balfour and Delmas are likely to be affected in the same way as Carolina.

More than 80% of South Africa’s coal for power generation and the export market is extracted from this region, where about 60 mines are presently operating on 13% of river catchments and productive farms.

The region is also the country’s largest producer of maize and soya beans.

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