Environmentalists fight Wakkerstroom coal project

Environmentalists have dragged an Indian company to court in a bid to stop it from mining coal in Mpumalanga without environmental authorisation or local planning approval.

Atha-Africa Ventures, in which two of President Jacob Zuma’s nephews have shares, intends to open its Yzermyn Coal Mine in Mabola, which is a protected area in Mpumalanga near Wakkerstroom.

The company got its mining licence from the department of mineral resources in 2015 – after the land was declared a protected area.

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is concerned that if the mine goes ahead, it will endanger an important water resource, which is a source of four rivers – Usuthu, Tugela, Vaal and Pongola.

The CER, which represents eight environmental organisations, argues that the area has wetlands, pans and grasslands that, if mining is allowed, would be polluted and hurt water users downstream.

Zuma’s nephews – Sizwe Christopher Zuma and Vincent Gezinhliziyo Zuma – are trustees of Bashubile Trust, which has shares in Atha-Africa Ventures.

The case is scheduled to start in the Pretoria High Court next week.

CER’s mining programme head, Catherine Horsfield, said one approval at issue in the interdict was the environmental authorisation issued by the Mpumalanga department of environmental affairs last year, which the CER has appealed.

“This authorisation has been appealed by the coalition, but the Mpumalanga agriculture MEC [Vusi Shongwe] has not yet decided on the appeal. Until such a decision has been made, the authorisation is suspended by law, and Atha-Africa cannot commence mining,” Horsfield said.

The other approval the CER wants stopped is the approval for change of land use from conservation and agriculture to mining, a legal requirement under the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act. Horsfield said Atha-Africa Ventures had not yet received the necessary approval from the Pixley ka Isaka Seme Local Municipality in Volksrust.

“Before launching court proceedings to stop the mine, the coalition repeatedly asked Atha-Africa to provide an undertaking that it would not proceed without these approvals. It has refused to do so. This left the coalition with no option but to approach the high court,” said Horsfield.

Aside from this application, the CER has also brought a number of legal proceedings against Atha-Africa, including:

. The setting aside of the mineral resources department’s decision to grant the mining licence;

. Appealing the environmental authorisation the Mpumalanga environmental affairs department granted;

. Appealing against the environmental management programme that the department of mineral resources approved; and

. Appealing against the water use licence that the department of water and sanitation granted.

Documents that City Press obtained indicate that all the departments, except the Mpumalanga department of environmental affairs, initially declined to grant Atha-Africa Ventures the necessary licences due to the adverse consequences of mining in the sensitive area.

However, the departments changed their minds and gave Atha-Africa the go-ahead.

Atha-Africa Ventures said it would oppose the urgent interdict. It would seek costs, and punitive costs severally and individually, for bringing a ‘frivolous application where no urgency exists’.

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