Frustrated residents of Somkhele, a rural mining community in the South African province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, are accusing a large coal mine -that is planning to expand – of gross pollution and causing health hazards that threaten their lives.
“I can not remember a time when we could breathe fresh air in this area,” said Makhosi Ndwandwa, who lives less than two miles away from the open cast mine. “I am not exaggerating. If it is not the scary explosions that break our windows, it is the dust killing our crops and giving us black water.”
Tendele Coal Mine, one of 14 operating coal mines in the province, is embroiled in a legal battle with environmentalists and community members in the surrounding villages of Ophondweni and Emalahleni, over plans to expand by 21.8 million hectares (54 million acres). The expansion would displace roughly 200 families, many of whom earn a living by subsistence farming.
Tendele claims that if no resolution is reached about its proposed expansion, it will have to close down operations by June 2022.
South Africa relies heavily on coal for power generation, which produces more than 80 percent of the country’s electricity. However, according to the Department of Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan, the government is working to see that drop to 59 percent by 2030.
A dangerous desperation
According to Ndwandwa, the looming June deadline has triggered dangerous desperation amongst those who benefit the most from the mine’s existence.
“Our lives are in danger from all sides; our traditional leaders, the businessmen with tenders and now even some of our neighbours want to harm us,” she said.
In October 2020, Fikile Ntshangase, a senior member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), a KwaZulu Natal-based organisation that is challenging the further expansion of the coal mine, was gunned down in her home by assailants.
Many believed she was murdered because of her vehement stance against the expansion of the mine. The case remains unsolved.
“My clients are a strong cohesive group but they have endured a lot of aggression and threats on their lives for doing what they believe is right,” says Kirsten Youens, a lawyer representing MCEJO against the coal mine in court. “Some of my clients are not willing to relocate at all as their land has been in their family for generations.”
Pro-mining community members accuse environmentalists of ulterior motives.
According to Thembinkosi Mlungwana, a community leader, “The mine has done so much for our people. Just recently they donated over 40 school shoes for children who could not afford them. They have also donated 12 water tanks. It does not make sense why a small group of people want the mine to go.”
Echoing his sentiments is Israel Nyawo, a local businessman with interests in the mine. Over the years, he has also been involved in mediation between the mine and locals.
“If the mine closes it will affect everyone in an unrepairable way,” he told Al Jazeera. “Over a thousand people will lose their jobs and with that, poverty and crime will increase in the area.”
The mines have often argued that their operations help soften the blow of rampant joblessness across the country. According to recent data from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the nationwide unemployment rate sits at a staggering 35.3 percent, with almost 300,000 people losing their jobs in the last quarter of 2021.
But Youens said there was “simply no evidence that the people employed by the mining company are even from this area” and insisted that the mine’s social and environmental impact far outweighs the benefits.
“Almost everyone that lives in the area has some sort of respiratory disease, these are long-term implications that are devastating to my clients,” she said.
Residents have also complained that the mine’s current practices affect the community’s ability to farm and become climate adaptable in the face of global efforts to tackle climate change. “This is important for Indigenous communities in Africa, especially where the effects of climate change are dire.”
Ndwandwa is holding out hope that the mine’s possible exit will restore peace in the community, “We used to be very close with all of our neighbours. It was not uncommon to share food and other things, but now the mine has divided us. You can’t trust your neighbour any more.”
Representatives of Tendele Coal Mine and the government did not respond to questions.