Indian company Atha-Africa Ventures’ only hope to establish its Mpumalanga coal mine now lies in the hands of the province’s environmental affairs MEC, Vusi Shongwe, after its last court application failed.
Environmentalists opposed to the establishment of Yzermyn in the Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom have frustrated Atha-Africa’s intention for the past three years, starting in the Pretoria High Court and going to the Bloemfontein Supreme Court of Appeal and eventually to the Constitutional Court.
The Centre for Environmental Rights has so far not only managed to get the company’s mining permit reversed but also successfully opposed authorisations that were given by the department of environmental affairs (DEA), department of water and sanitation and the provincial environmental affairs department.
Atha-Africa’s struggle began in November 2018 when the Pretoria High Court set aside the 2016 decisions of then DEA minister Edna Molewa and her mineral resources counterpart Mosebenzi Zwane, which were giving the company permission to mine.
The company attempted four times to challenge the 2018 judgment and the Constitutional Court was its last resort.
The targeted area for Yzermyn is right within the 70 000-hectare Mabola Protected Environment, which is a strategic fresh water resource. The area, according to the green organisations, is a source of four rivers – Usuthu, Tugela, Vaal and Pongola – and if it was polluted by mine acid water drainage, the results would be disastrous for communities.
Mining and Environmental Justice Communities Network of SA chairperson Elton Thobejane said the Constitutional Court victory was significant.
“Our courts continue to recognise the importance of the protection of the environment and our strategic water resources, especially at a time when we are already suffering the impacts of climate change. Decisions to authorise coal mines should be critically scrutinised and questioned,” he said.
GroundWork’s director Bobby Peek said: “Defending the Mabola Protected Environment is more than an attempt to mitigate further climate change impacts. It is also about defending the rights of communities who will be affected by the proposed mining activities. GroundWork applauds this decision as it sends a strong message to decision-makers that mining and profits cannot come before communities and their sustainable livelihoods.”
Pressure groups in the poverty-stricken Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Local Municipality in Volksrust have, however, been concerned about the environmentalists’ fight, as they were looking forward to the creation of jobs.
They have since petitioned Shongwe to do something and ensure the mine is established.
The unemployment rate in the municipality is 33.7%, according to a Stats SA 2016 community survey. The mine was expected to create about 600 permanent jobs and 2 000 indirect ones throughout its 15-year life span.
Mpumalanga environmental affairs spokesperson Zanele Shabangu said that the consultation process was not completed. Shongwe intends to exclude about 2 750.343 hectares of the Mabola Protected Environment in order to enable Atha-Africa Ventures to go ahead with its project.
Shabangu said that the department was “still in the process of conducting public participation in terms of section 33 of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (act 57 of 2003).” Until then, Atha-Africa’s chances of extracting coal were nil.
In a notice published about two months ago, Shongwe said that he took the decision in order to ensure that there was balance towards the use of natural resources for the socioeconomic benefits of all citizens, while promoting environmental protection and sustainability.
Atha-Africa’s South African partners are former president Jacob Zuma’s nephews, Sizwe Christopher Zuma and Vincent Gezinhliziyo Zuma. They have shares in Atha-Africa through Bashubile Trust.