This is the story of the struggle the late Ntombenhle Nene was engaged in at the time of her premature death, on 15 August 2021, from meningitis. It is a struggle dating back to 2015, when she and her dear friend and brother, Mlindeli Ndimande, joined other activists to challenge the injustices and suffering inflicted on rural communities since Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC) started mining coal in 1987.
ZAC is situated off the beaten track, near Ulundi, and north-west of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HIP). HiP is the oldest protected area in Africa providing a sanctuary for endangered Black and White Rhino for 113 years, as well as other threatened animals, birds, fish, and endemic plant species.
ZAC’s destruction of 3 rivers
Mining operations have devastated the area and robbed previously self-sufficient rural farmers of their water, leaving them impoverished and desperate. Zululand is prone to extended drought and so water is a critical and scarce resource. A 50/50 television documentary, flighted in October 2020, exposed ZAC’s track record of polluting rivers and groundwater and killing several important rivers, streams, and springs. Predictions are that the dry Mbocwane River, once a vital source of water for Sheleza and several other villages, is unlikely to flow again for 50 years, maybe longer. The same holds for the dry Nhlungwana River.
For the residents of Okhukho, where Ntombenhle and Mlindeli live, it was the loss of the Mvalo River that dramatically changed their lives for the worse. They no longer have water for use at home or for their fields, cattle, goats, and other livestock. Wildlife, birds, the plants growing on the banks of the river could not survive and have gradually disappeared from the landscape. The surrounding environment has become drier and increasingly inhospitable. Cattle have died. For many this has meant the end of their livelihoods as small-scale farmers and of any hope of an independent source of income. It is estimated that 80% of the families living in the area are solely dependent on government grants to survive and out of this meagre money they are forced to buy water at exorbitant prices – R350 for 50 litres, or R7 a litre. ZAC intermittently supplies water to villages close to its operations because the mine needs water, but it has not paid compensation to communities for the damage it has caused including the loss of communal water sources that mining has destroyed or contaminated during its 35 years of operation.
ZAC’s illegal unlined pollution control dams
When Menar, the current owners of ZAC, took over from Rio Tinto in 2016, it signed an undertaking with the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to comply with its conditional Water Use Licence, that it would line the pollution control dams within a year. Five years later, the dams remain unlined and continue to leach highly toxic mine waste that pollutes the groundwater and surrounding areas. There is video footage showing the mine discharging contaminated water directly into the dry Mbocwane River that joins the Black Mfolozi River before it enters the Hluhluwe section of the Park. Tests of the river in the Park reveal high levels of acid drainage from the mine which kills important microorganisms that help keep the system healthy. Wildlife drinking from the river is also impacted and some species may die. Despite this, Menar’s Executive Chairman/CEO, Vuslat Bayoglu, claims on camera that all ZAC’s pollution control dams are lined and that the mine does not pollute water.
Outrageous Approval of ZAC’s proposed Mngeni Adit shaft and Water Use Licence
Against this background, the announcement on 30 March 2021 that ZAC has been granted a mining licence for a new underground shaft, called the Mngeni Adit, and a Water Use Licence associated with the Adit, is met with disbelief. Besides the mine’s poor environmental history, the entire Mngeni shaft study area is classified as being of “Highest Biodiversity Importance” and includes endemic lowveld vegetation that is irreplaceable if it were lost. These are surely fatal flaws!
The Adit is sited less than 2km from HiP, well within the 5km buffer zone established to protect the Park against inappropriate developments and activities on its periphery. It is a mere 340 metres from the banks of the Black Mfolozi River, where it will unquestionably pollute this section of the river as well. The guideline for national Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas (FEPA) recommends that no mining be permitted within 1km of a FEPA river.
Mr Ndukenhle Duma, a local resident of Masokaneni village, where the Mngeni Adit is sited, is planning to build a lodge in the Mandlakazi Community Protected Area, only 1, 9km from the Mngeni Adit. The lodge will create 44 local jobs. He and other Masokaneni residents say they have not been consulted or properly informed and are challenging the approval of the Mngeni Adit.
Public Participation farce
There has been no meaningful public participation to speak of, except one meeting on 29 August 2019 on the ZAC football field. ZAC called the meeting, ZAC provided transport and a ZAC employee provided the translation. There was very little opportunity to raise concerns. Challenging questions that the mine and its consultants, GCS Water and Environmental Consultants, preferred not to answer were deferred or ignored. Whenever the meeting started to get heated, the mine would mention jobs to pacify people desperate for jobs through no fault of their own. ZAC never specified how many or what kind of jobs the proposed Adit would provide, or for how long. Most jobs for local residents will be temporary and low paid. Currently, of the 20% of the residents who are employed, an estimated 10% have jobs in HiP; 5% work in ZAC mine and the other 5% have their own businesses.
It was a most unsatisfactory meeting for people like Ntombenhle, Mlindeli and residents of Masokaneni village where the proposed Mngeni Adit is sited. They wanted answers to important questions about the exact location of the underground mining, which houses would be affected, what would the mine do about cracks that would surely appear in their houses, what about the impacts of the mine on the local primary school, would graves have to be moved, what about the water, dust, noise ….. Residents are still waiting for these questions to be answered.
Impact of Mngeni Adit on Masokaneni village
The new Mngeni Adit is sited in the middle of Masokaneni village across the road from the local primary school. Residents have not been informed that the proposed Adit will cut them off from uGojwane stream that flows into the Black Mfolozi River about 500m away. People currently fetch water from the stream and livestock drink and feed there. It is unlikely uGojwane will survive the mining of the Mngeni Adit. Approximately 80 households graze their cattle and goats where the Adit will be sited. The Basic Assessment Report (BAR) for the Adit ignores impacts resulting from vegetation clearance such as loss of grazing for livestock, damage to vital natural resources, the relocation of ancestral graves, removal of places of worship, and many other critical issues.
It is estimated that the residents of Masokaneni own 1,000 cattle valued at R15000 each, 3000 goats at R1500 each, and 100 sheep at R2000 each, totalling about R19.75 million that will require new grazing areas a long way from Masokaneni. Should anything happen to any of these livestock, the mine will not hold itself accountable.
For the five-year operational phase, a noisy extraction fan will run 24/7 and large haulage trucks will be collecting coal throughout the day, destroying the peace and quiet of this rural Zulu village. The mine predicts that 52 large coal haulage trucks will be travelling daily on the dirt road between the Mngeni Adit and the wash plant, 9.5 kms away, at Okhukho. There will be an additional 48 passenger vehicles and 3 minibus taxis per day. All this heavy traffic, often travelling at high speeds, will churn up dust and pose a threat to livestock and pedestrians. At night, given the mine’s close proximity to existing homes, in some instances only 45m from the proposed Adit, it is predicted that noise levels will exceed night-time limits for rural areas. Residents are still waiting to be informed which homes will be affected.
ZAC denies that any houses will be undermined. ZAC also denies responsibility for cracked houses, claiming that structures that crack have been badly built. When the issue of cracked houses was raised at the public meeting, ZAC stated that blasting is within prescribed limits and that was the end of the matter. It is difficult to understand how ZAC continues to deny that blasting for its underground operations does not cause houses to crack and collapse or plead ignorance about terrifying sinkholes appearing across the landscape without warning.
Challenging Mngeni Adit authorisation
The Global Environmental Trust (GET) supports residents and activists who are determined that ZAC should not be allowed to devastate Masokaneni village and leave the residents impoverished, as it has done to other villages. ZAC should not be authorised to open any new shaft or start any new operation without first rehabilitating existing shafts that are abandoned. They pose a serious danger to curious children, livestock and the environment. A man died in the Sheleza shaft that had not been properly sealed off. Western shaft stopped operating in 2016 and has been left in a shocking state that is toxic and highly dangerous.
Honouring NtombenhleNene’s courage
In solidarity with the struggle of the Masokaneni and Okhukho residents, GET appealed the mining right for the Mngeni Adit. Others who lodged appeals include Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the nearby Umfolozi Big 5 Game Reserve and Mr Ndukenhle Duma. Ntombenhle was clear that Mngeni Adit should not have been approved and was amongst a growing number of local activists taking a strong stand to ensure social and environmental justice. We honour Ntombenhle’s courage by doing the same.