Mining threat to Ramsar wetland

Local residents and landowners are asking why the government has granted a mine prospecting permit for an area adjacent to the ecologically sensitive Ramsar wetland site of Verlorenvlei in the Western Cape.

The site, in the Moutonshoek Valley near Piketberg, is also a highly productive farming area. Landowners and the Verlorenvlei Coalition are to lodge an appeal against the decision with Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu.

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The recipient of the permit is a Stellenbosch-based black empowerment company, Bongani Minerals, in which businessman and advocate Phemelo Sehunelo has a 10% stake. Sehunelo is a co-founder of controversial empowerment mining company Imperial Crown Trading 289 (ICT), which is at the centre of the row involving Kumba over iron-ore mining rights at Sishen.

He has also been romantically linked with Duduzile Kunene, an official in the department of mineral resources. Kunene was in office for a month in 2009 when Bongani lodged its application, but the company withdrew the application before she ruled on it. The application was resubmitted when she moved to another provincial office.

The Hawks raided Sehumelo at the beginning of August as part of the Sishen investigation and Kunene also came under scrutiny. This week she referred all questions to the department and Sehunelo did not return the Mail & Guardian‘s calls.

Zingaphi Jakuja, director of communications at the mineral resources department, said that during the processing of the current prospecting right Kunene was not working for the department’s Western Cape office. “The issue of her involvement in this right does not arise at all,” Jakuja said.

However, the Moutonshoek Valley is abuzz. “Bongani Minerals has no mining infrastructure or experience—in fact, no assets at all,” said Malie Grütter, spokesperson for the Verlorenvlei Coalition. “All it seems to have going for it are three rather influential BEE partners.”

Grütter said Bongani had been “holding the community to ransom for six years while they file one incomplete application after the other”. How is it that they have managed to cling on to this mineral right since 2005?” she asked. She said land values in the valley had dropped significantly and development had stalled.

The coalition said a French-owned holding company, Batla Minerals, was behind Bongani and, ultimately, most of the money would be going to French shareholders, with few South Africans benefiting, despite the 51% BEE shareholding.

In July the minerals department issued the right to explore a deposit of tungsten, rare earths and molybdenum on four farms in the valley, which are in the catchment area of the Verlorenvlei, which feeds into the sea at Elands Bay, 80km northwest of Piketberg.

Bongani’s chief executive, Johannes van der Walt, said the area held the world’s sixth-largest tungsten deposit, although the coalition said it was much smaller and mining would not be viable. Van der Walt said prospecting would prove the project’s feasibility beyond doubt. “If the decision is taken to apply for a mining right, it will involve an entirely new consultation and public participation process,” he said.

Bongani’s application was withdrawn in 2009 because it had discovered more minerals associated with the deposit and so submitted a new application to prospect, Van der Walt said. Bongani was not aware of a personal relationship between Kunene and Sehumelo.

Van der Walt said an environmental management plan had been approved as part of the process and Jakuja said all agricultural and environmentally sensitive areas had been excluded from the right concerned. “No wetland is affected by this application—it’s about 30km downstream,” she said.

The coalition said the valley, which employed hundreds of previously disadvantaged women, provided 60% of Verlorenvlei’s water. “The proposed Riviera tungsten mine could at best employ 90-odd men on an intermittent basis,” Grütter said.


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