Hope for Somkhele, Place of Pain

A cracked homestead with the extensive mine dumps visible in the background.

“On Thursday, 15 February 2018, one hundred and twenty people gathered in Somkhele, near the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, to document stories of how their lives have been devastated by Tendele coal mine for the past thirteen years. This brings hope that life in Somkhele is going to change for the better. Sadly, 45 year old Yibinathi* was not one of those present. She committed suicide two weeks before and so her painful story was told by her daughter-in-law.”

by Kirsten Youens

Somkhele, KZN, South Africa. Somkhele residents have been subjected to unbearable living conditions since 2004 when Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd started mining for coal in the area. Over the years the mine has expanded and currently operates over a vast area, affecting six villages and thousands of people, many without hope of a better life. The footprint of the mine is set to expand to a massive 222 km2 directly on the eastern boundary of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve and will affect thousands more people over the next thirty years, until 2046. These mining rights are in the process of being appealed by Youens Attorneys on behalf of the Global Environmental Trust (GET) and the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO).

On 15 February 2018, a meeting was held with 120 residents from the six villages directly affected by the mining operations, to document their stories with a view to assisting them.  

One young woman, Sindisiwe, comes to all our meetings and was at this one to share her story again. Her mother-in-law, Yibanathi*, is usually with her but was absent on this particular day. When I inquired after her, Sindisiwe told me the tragic news that Sarah had committed suicide two weeks before. She hanged herself. She was only 45 years old. Sindisiwe said Yibanathi was very stressed and unhappy about what the mine had done to her family after their relocation in 2008 and had tried for many years to do something about it. She went to the traditional court and to the mine but no-one helped her. Her husband died of respiratory related illnesses in 2010. There is no water, no work and no land to plant and harvest food. She just gave up, leaving behind four children and many more dependents.  

Kwanele* lives so close to the mine that when the mine blasts, rocks fall onto his land and buildings.  His house has been vandalised, apparently by people trying to intimidate him into moving away, as many others have been forced to do. He has no land left to graze cattle or cultivate plants. What was once a beautiful, peaceful, sustainable life is now a wasteland of destruction and danger.

There is no justification, including so-called “development”, that makes it acceptable to ignore people’s lives in such an inhumane and unjust way. Our Constitution provides for the fundamental right for everyone to live in an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being. The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) confirms that the environment is held in public trust for the people, that the beneficial use of environmental resources must serve the public interest, and the environment must be protected as the people’s common heritage.

The conditions in which the people of Somkhele live are in contravention of our Bill of Rights, NEMA and the moral fabric that holds our society together.  Not only have they experienced environmental and emotional harm but also cultural harm. The graves of their ancestors have been violated, and their way of life, their traditions and belief systems are devastated. Somkhele was well-known in KZN for being an excellent area for raising livestock.  There was a Zulu saying that if a calf was born in Somkhele, you could know for sure that it would grow into a healthy adult. Now skeletons of cattle lie scattered over the landscape.

Every person I spoke to complained about their houses cracking, about lack of water and land, loss of livestock, and about respiratory illness and being poorer in every respect since the mine came. Those who attempted to raise their concerns with the mine management and traditional authorities were left without any response. Where compensation had been paid to people in order for them to make way for the mine, such compensation was woefully inadequate and inconsistently applied. It is hard to imagine how one would feel when told to vacate one’s home, to hand over one’s land, to find somewhere else to live, to move belongings and livestock, exhume and move ancestral graves, and to build a new house to start life all over again – all for a meagre R250 000. The suffering is both physical and emotional. Also spiritual.

Many people relocated to the nearest village where residents made space to accommodate them. Rural life, as everyone knew it, changed forever. Within a few years, the mine expanded to within 500 metres of the village, taking fields and grazing land and leaving families without any means to live off their land. The noise of coal trucks and machinery operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week is enough on its own to drive people to suicide. The blasting from the mine shatters the air and rocks the ground. Windows shake and break, and walls crack to the extent that people are afraid their houses will collapse on top of them – which has happened.  Dust plumes extend across the Mfolozi river to as far as Fuleni, the next village 18 km away. Coal dust fills water tanks and covers the grass and plants, leaving nothing that is safe for people or cattle to eat or drink. Cattle often end up inside the mine fences, lost or killed by trucks or huge discarded stones. Some individuals still have family graves within the mining area. The negotiations to exhume ancestral graves are at a stalemate. Meanwhile mine trucks devastate the landscape around the graves and family members, who are worried about the state of the graves of loved ones, are unable to visit the graves because it is unsafe.

Tendele mine management informed people that the land does not belong to them and they therefore do not need to be compensated for expropriating it. Established farmers, like Sanele* are left destitute when hectares of land are expropriated without compensation. She had 2 hectares of land on which she planted beans, cabbages, mealies, sweet potatoes, cabbages and gum trees. She had 52 head of cattle.  She now has no land, no cattle and no way in which to earn a living or feed and support her family. The meagre compensation she received was in lieu of building another house elsewhere, not to compensate her for her loss of land, her cattle or for her crops and woodlot. The monthly loss for another farmer, Mzamo*, is in the region of R12 500 and Xolisile* has lost livestock to the value of R123 200.

In the past, people survived on what they were able to harvest and by living off the land. Some residents were able to make a good living as farmers, particularly livestock, and several multi-millionaires lived in Somkhele. However, many people were duped into believing the mine was in their best interests and now they have nothing.

Helplessness, pain and sorrow are palpable in the documented stories told by Somkhele residents who are directly affected by Tendele mine. However, the meeting that included the experience of Johan Lorenzen from Richard Spoor Attorneys, also brought hope that things might change. Sadly that hope came two weeks too late for Yibanathi.    

All names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy and to ensure their safety.

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