Northern Cape families resist mining company's efforts to move them

The streets of Dingleton in the Northern Cape are empty but some families are resisting Kumba Iron Ore’s attempts to move them. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)
The streets of Dingleton in the Northern Cape are empty but some families are resisting Kumba Iron Ore’s attempts to move them. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Dingleton - The streets in Dingleton are deserted, except for the occasional stray cat that emerges from the overgrown shrubbery, scuttling back into the bushes at the sight of a car.

Homes lie empty – their doors ajar or ripped from their hinges, electrical wires protruding from the walls, the floors littered with shards of glass and household items discarded in the move to Siyathemba, 25km away. Enormous potholes mar the roads.

The businesses that once served this Northern Cape community have long since closed, and residents must travel to Siyathemba to buy groceries. The clinic is still running, but no one knows for how long, GroundUp reported.

The school, the community hall, and the hostel have all been abandoned. Their replacements have already been built in Siyathemba.

Until January 13, a school bus collected the remaining Dingleton children and took them to their new school in Siyathemba. The transport contract expired at the end of 2016, when the last residents of Dingleton were supposed to have moved out.

Siyathemba, meaning “We Trust” in isiXhosa, is the “new Dingleton”, built by Kumba Iron Ore on the outskirts of the little town of Kathu. This is where the residents of Dingleton are to be moved, so that Kumba can extend the Sishen iron mine.

Kumba, a subsidiary of Anglo American, owns Sishen, one of the largest open-pit mining operations in the world. Kathu, home to over 11 500 people, relies on Sishen for its existence.

Burgundy-coloured dust from mining cakes the landscape. In Dingleton, a town not 10 minutes’ walk from Sishen, the dust seems to have stained every surface; its red colour is only interrupted by the intense green of foliage after the summer rain.

The close-knit community of Dingleton has been broken up. Most families have moved to Siyathemba, central Kathu, or other Northern Cape towns. Most of those who agreed to move to Siyathemba received a new home, a once-off inconvenience payment and a setup allowance totalling about R30 000. Kumba has promised to subsidise the increase in municipal taxes for about 20 years.

The 25 families still in Dingleton are refusing to move on Kumba’s terms, and want more compensation for their homes.

‘It was not about getting rich’

Melvin Lang, 27, who moved to Dingleton when he was a toddler, says Dingleton thrived not with Kumba’s help, but in spite of it.

“The mine was developing communities around us. All those years they were using the excuse that Dingleton cannot be developed because eventually they will mine in the area,” says Lang.

His widowed mother Maria, who owns the Langs’ home in Dingleton, says that in 2004 she was “so thrilled” that the mine promised work for their children, compensation, and new houses. In 2013, Maria signed a contract agreeing to move to Siyathemba.

When Melvin saw the agreement he was worried as there was no mention of financial compensation. The lawyer working for the community reassured him his mother could cancel the contract and that it was not the final agreement.

As the years passed, Melvin grew more concerned. In 2015, he tried to formally cancel the agreement. "For me, it was never about using this opportunity to get rich, but for my mother to be better off," says Melvin.

In November last year, a mine representative offered Maria R2.3m for her house. The Langs rejected this. Maria has now been summoned to the Northern Cape High Court, in an attempt to force her to comply with the original agreement.

Some residents have demanded R30m for their homes, sparking anger from those who have already moved to Siyathemba and lost out on such potential deals.

Frederick van Neel has been living in Dingleton for 18 years. He lives with his wife and grandchild and doesn’t own a car. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Frederick van Neel, 80, who has lived in Dingleton for 18 years, says his lawyer used figures supplied by Kumba to calculate this amount. Kumba has not disputed or corrected the R30m figure.

"Kumba wants everyone’s house. But the people do not realise that they have got property. I’ve got my title deeds. This is why I decided I cannot give my property for Kumba for mahala [nothing]. Kumba has got to pay for this."

Living in the town that has been almost abandoned and has no public transport is not easy for an elderly man without a car. But Van Neel, a small, quiet man who speaks in a measured tone, manages to get lifts to Kathu with friends.

Victor Andreas, who is leading the opposition to Kumba’s attempts to get them to move, wants the company to make him an offer. Kumba has done prospecting in the area and "know exactly what is under the ground".

He understands the mine is not obliged to pay residents anything for the iron ore to be mined but knows that Kumba cannot force the residents to move.

The only way to force them to move would be to expropriate the land.

"I am willing to move. But we need to go to the table and negotiate a resettlement package. The value of my house must be part of that package. It’s about what’s fair."

Is Kumba mining illegally?

Dingleton residents insist that Kumba is operating illegally, mining within the 500m buffer zone required by law between opencast mining and residential areas. They say this is one of the reasons why rocks from recent blasting smashed into local houses.

Kumba spokesperson Yvonne Mfolo said the company was not mining in the buffer. When the residents eventually leave Dingleton, Kumba was not planning to mine in the town, but only in the buffer zone.

The reason for moving the town was to "execute a long-standing and agreed plan to mine closer to and ultimately within the buffer zone – which would bring the pit shell too close to the town", Mfolo said.

Residents don’t believe Kumba’s version and insist there is iron ore beneath their homes.

Kumba’s insistence that there will be no mining in the town itself appears to be contradicted by a recent authorisation from the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) for the mine to demolish buildings in Dingleton. "The mineral deposits underlying the area in question have already been determined by the mine through their prospecting and exploration operation. The proposed activities will entail demolition of the area to access and mine the underlying iron ore deposits," reads the authorisation document.

The area referred to in Kumba’s application includes the whole of Dingleton and some surrounding areas.

The authorisation allows the mine to demolish buildings 100m away from houses that are still occupied. Kumba is allowed to begin demolishing during the second week of February unless affected parties submit appeals.

Kumba told GroundUp that the company needs to demolish houses in Dingleton primarily to "ensure public health and safety as vacant habitations close to a mine cause a risk".

Vacant homes in Dingleton have been looted or vandalised. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Flying rocks and sleepless nights

Jacob Rolland says when the mine is operating at night, there are "trucks, shovels and hauling", making it impossible to sleep. When blasting occurs, it feels like an earthquake, he says.

The residents use the term "blasting shock" to describe the effect that the explosions have on the townspeople.

"DMR has failed us. DMR refuses to come to check whether Kumba is operating outside or inside the buffer zone," Rolland says.

The families most neglected during the move are those who were renting in Dingleton. Many of them claim that at the beginning of the negotiations they were promised 50m2 houses, but as the negotiations wore on, this changed.

Kumba says renters were never promised the option of a replacement home but were given the option to rent property in one of the newly-constructed buildings in Siyathemba.

Stores stand vacant. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Waiting for the Red Ants

Those who remain, live in abandoned buildings or in the hostel, spending their days on the side of the potholed road, waiting for the Red Ants, a private security company that carries out forced evictions.

Former renter Ellen van der Westhuizen says: "It is heartbreaking and the mine doesn’t care how you feel."

Like many other renters, Van der Westhuizen was offered R2 000 for six months if she found a place to rent in Kathu.

"But after six months, what can I then do? And there is no rent in Kathu for R2 000. It is from R3 000 and more."

Her concerns are echoed by other renters, like Marie Gorrah. They have used the subsidy for a few months but have not moved to Kathu and must now either move or repay it. 

Kumba told GroundUp it "provided a subsidy of R2 000 to renters who indicated they wanted to explore alternative options of renting property of their own choice".

"Subsequently, some of these renters could not find alternative accommodation to their liking, and Kumba has again offered them suitable alternative accommodation."

Renter Elizabeth de Koker says Kumba has not kept its promises.

"Kumba has money. Do we have a chance to fight against such a big company?"

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