Mining’s ugly underbelly

Hearings at the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) this week exposed the ugly underbelly of mining in South Africa, while the government’s actions to protect communities were questioned.

South Africa’s mining sector contributes around 18% of GDP and over 50% in foreign exchange earnings, but it has an undisputed dark side.

Violent clashes between mine workers, communities and the government over the last few years caused the SAHRC to conduct a two-day public hearing on the socioeconomic issues facing mining communities.

The discontent has sparked a wave of strikes and protests across the sector, including in Marikana in the North West and Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.

The hearings come in the same week that Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane announced an 18-month moratorium on the controversial Xolobeni mining application, where blood has been shed.

Xolobeni, as well as the tension between mine workers and the community, were mentioned a few times during the hearings.

Commission panellists Mohamed Ameermia, Lindiwe Mokate, Janet Love and Tracy-Lynn Humby were bombarded with presentations of how mining companies had ridden roughshod over communities’ rights, and how the government had failed to protect them.

Panel chairperson Ameermia said a thorough report would be compiled after the hearings.

Humby said the issues affecting communities living around mines were becoming intense, fuelling protests and hardship.

“This has resulted in a decline of the country’s GDP and shaken investor confidence,” the commission said, adding that it had received numerous complaints about the negative consequences of mining from ommunities in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

At the hearings, the Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua) made a strong submission of how mining ruined communities’ lives. Macua represents 100 communities through 70 organisations. It spoke of how mining polluted communities’ water, making it unfit for consumption.

“The polluter-pays principle is never enforced.”

The Centre for Environmental Rights said the department of mineral resources was shirking its duties.

However, the department of mineral resources’ representative denied that it was not heeding communities’ concerns.

It recommended that the responsibility for the environmental regulation of mines be moved to the department of environmental affairs to ensure the fox was not guarding the henhouse.

Poor environmental governance by the department had caused numerous violations of environmental rights in the mining sector, it believed.

Limpopo community member Agnes Molemela, who lives in the Sekhukhune region, said her community’s livestock was dying after drinking water polluted by mines.

“Our houses are cracking because of the blasting and we have never-ending dust. And government never listens to us. We are tired,” she said.

Macua was scathing of the government’s inaction in dealing with polluting mines, saying that despite mining companies violating the Constitution, they were never brought to book by the minerals department.

Most of the organisations berated mining companies and the government for cutting communities out of the loop by forcing them to deal with consultants.

“The department and mining companies never speak directly, but deal with communities via the consultants,” said Macua.

Traditional leaders also often sided with the mining companies, not doing what is best for their communities. Mining companies wooed traditional leaders, and then used the chief’s influence to get the community to agree, representatives from the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) told the commission.

It said it had pursued about 700 complaints against traditional leaders in Limpopo.

“Mining companies will always get it wrong if they only consult traditional leaders,” the LRC said. The Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of SA accused traditional leaders of being bought out by mines.

While community development trusts were supposed to empower communities, it ended up with political leaders, councillors and family members of mine owners as the main participants, Macua said.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies said mining companies enticed communities with elaborate social and labour plans, which built expectations in a community.

“Often these expectations were dashed,” the centre said. “These plans are more like adverts of what is promised to the community and do not acknowledge the negatives of what a mine would bring.”

When the government departments, which included planning and evaluation, water and sanitation, health and human settlements and mineral resources, made their presentations on the second day of the hearings, the commission’s panel took them to task.

The government departments admitted that there were big problems that they were dealing with, but said they were trying to improve their interactions with communities.

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