Destruction of my birthplace

“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it – if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass ”  (George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860)

How could we know the earth, if we have no earth to know? If all we have of     our childhood memories are disused mines, grey and matted overburden, smouldering discard coal dumps, lakes of acid mine drainage and the foul, acrid stench of coal fires? This poisoned earth is not the earth that the people of Africa knew in the past. It is not the earth people still know in places such as Xolobeni where people are defending their land from mining.

The groundwork Reports explore the state of environmental justice in South Africa. This year, and in 2017, we view the state of environmental justice through the lens of the Mpumalanga Highveld and its destruction through the extraction and burning of coal. Sadly, what we see is environmental injustice, not environmental justice. On the Highveld, people are not empowered through democratic participation. They do not enjoy the fruits of freedom, equality or solidarity.   The   post-apartheid   government   together   with   the 1% keep the majority  extremely impoverished.  They create poverty to  make people desperate for any work that might be thrown their way, even to sacrifice their health at the altar of the coal mines and to live in places where the soil is dead, the water is acid and the air is pungent with sulphur, benzene and other pollutants. As people here do not see equality and solidarity, they live with the degraded environments created by mining and corporate profit.

Much of the Highveld resembles the post-apocalyptic nightmare of an already dead and dying land. While people work to save what’s left, the powers that be are hell-bent on pulling it apart and violating it, all in the name of the poor but actually for the enrichment of a few. Well, the poor need jobs – regardless of what those jobs are – so that the elite can make their ever-growing fortunes.

The same flowers will not come up every spring for, besides the earth being wasted by mining, it is also being wasted by climate change. What we knew as children, we will not experience as adults. So why should the youth of Mpumalanga consider the earth differently? With love? There is no joy in the wasteland that they experience, so maintaining a world that for them does not really exist is impossible. Activities such as mining, which will entrench the death of their earth, might be considered their only hope of getting away from this doom. It is only through the work of imagination that they can find the seeds of another world.

What is alarming in this year’s ground Work Report, is the evidence that in the era of democracy things have got worse rather than better. Sadly, our democratic leadership lacks the creative imagination to think beyond the apartheid-created minerals-energy complex that depended on cheap black labour in polluting coal mines to produce cheap energy for the extractive industries to accumulate profits for a white local and global corporate elite. Now there is a tinge of colour to those elites!

In the 1990s, when environmental justice emerged as a narrative in South Africa, it was in hotspots such as Mpumalanga where people stood up and raised their concern about the destruction of their lives as they lived above old burning coal mines. I heard these stories when I worked for the then eminent environmental movement, the Environmental Justice Networking Forum. But during my three years there I never had the opportunity to visit these burning mines and so never understood the reality from a personal perspective. Then, in August 2015, for the first time I visited the area to bear witness – along with a group of parliamentarians. The fires were still burning. I saw it, smelt it and felt the heat of it for myself. This is not unusual in the global South. India is also known for its hell fires – as Nigerian anti-oil activist Nnimmo Bassey, of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, refers to burning coal mines. I also went underground where local people dig for coal to have some form of subsistence after mine owners absconded and left the people with abandoned, burning and collapsing coal mines. Underground, I crouched and crawled to the working coalface in this murky underground world lit by old headlamps and, believe it or not, candles. People are desperate.

The story concludes with the reality that mining seeks to extract and then offload the costs of its profits onto the environment and people and the promise of jobs and riches for the locals is nothing more than a mirage or blurred hope in the smog filled, polluted Highveld morning. People are left not with wealth but with no good air to breathe, no land to till and no water for crops.

The brutality of mining is shared with all in this ground Work Report. It pulls no punches. It recognises that mining is a doomed venture and that it has a history that does not allow us to have faith in its promise of delivery of jobs and development for the people.

There has always been a debate about sustainable mining, but the pipedream fades in the light of reality. Around the world people are saying no to mining and this resistance is becoming more organised. “Yes to Life and No to Mining” is the name and slogan of a movement of communities that recognises “that when we say no to mining, we stand in solidarity with the planet, with precious ecosystems and with the future generations of all species.” There is no blurred area about a hope for sustainable mining. It is clear: No to mining.

Marikana and the Niger Delta are the evidence that mining and fossil fuels kill. It is widely recognised that mining is “taking an enormous toll on people, undermining democracy, democratic institutions and political life; it is just not helping to solve Africa’s developmental needs,” as Bishop Jo Seoka put it at the Bench Marks’ annual general meeting in October. This legacy is well documented, but also long documented. In the “Open Veins of Latin America”, Eduardo Galeano grippingly pulls together how mining and the extraction of minerals have made Latin America undemocratic and have wasted its lands and ruined its people. So the evidence of 500 years of destruction is documented and the groundwork Report is not the first to do it. But the conclusions of analysis are not always the same.

Some conclude that sustainable mining is to be hoped for and must be strived for. They speak of the rehabilitation of lands so that crops can grow again and of new economies to be created with the wealth from mining so that, when the ores are mined out, people will have a new tomorrow. They pin their hopes on social and labour plans (SLPs) which outsource development of roads, jobs, education, housing and services for the people to transnational corporations or even ‘smallanyana’ fly by night local companies to whom the transnationals sell depleted assets and growing liabilities. At the end, they extract what very little blood of the earth – as the Uwa People of Columbia understand crude oil and fossil fuel – is left in the veins of coal seams and dump the liabilities on society and environment. Big or small, the corporations take the profits, move onto their next venture, plead poverty, declare insolvency, and dash whatever hopes were created through SLPs.

Various organisations have done critical work on understanding the impacts on mining in 2016. The Centre for Environmental Rights has exposed the brutal reality of poor governance and its entrenched nature. The Centre for Applied Legal Studies has clearly shown that the SLPs, promising a new life for those whose lands are destroyed, has failed to deliver. The writing is on the wall. Mining does not work for people. So let those of us in NGOs and in fortunate and privileged positions be very careful about how we reflect and pronounce on the subject. The debate to mine or not to mine is a brutal one at the level of the community where jobs are promised and where desperate people, because of a failed system, now live in hope that ‘any job’ will do. Let us be careful about pushing the false promise of sustainable mining when our own research, our own experience, our own photos, our own documentaries show the brutal reality. We should never be the organisations to start people on a one way, dead-end road when our own work shows that someone will be sacrificed at the altar of ‘sustainable mining’.

As the ink dries on the paper of this report, we read in the newspapers that the earnings of Wescoal will jump by more than 350% this year. This is indeed great news for the investors, be it elite black capital in South Africa or global capital. But ask the people of Arbor, where Wescoal’s mines blast dust and pollution on them, did the “development” in their neighbourhood improve 350%? Have they had a surge in wealth from being next to mines that are clearly profitable to someone? They did have a surge in something but that most certainly was not their earnings. They have had a surge in pollution, a surge in sickness, a surge in unemployment and a surge in poverty.

All of this happens in the context of a government in crisis. A weak and divided ruling party has made the real issues of governance secondary to its internal squabbles. It cannot hold onto any semblance of the governance that is promised in the Constitution, as political factions within the ANC fight to make the country’s wealth their own. And while this happens, the business-as-usual of extraction continues whether by a transnational corporation or a ‘family business’ such as the Guptas. When the profits are all done they abandon their liabilities and will, if they can, make off with rehabilitation trust funds meant to pay for the ‘restoration’ of such mines as Optimum.

Nevertheless, even in the bleak landscape made by the minerals-energy complex, our thinking concludes with the reality that people are winning. The end of coal is nigh. People’s movements, environmental and social justice organisations, and conservation organisations are all challenging coal. We can be successful but only by building and working with democratic processes. Because, no matter what the future, it is only democratic practice that is going to ensure we survive in a world where there is less of everything; and we should surely all agree that we need to have enough for all forever.

Let us collectively save the little we have left so that the children of the Highveld can grow up loving the earth.