At the coalface

Lynley Donnelly and Mail & Guardian photographer Paul Botes put on their working boots to find out more about the mineral that keeps the country’s lights on.

The Mpumalanga highveld is big-sky country. Low green hills slouch slowly towards wide, clouded heavens.

Only refinery towers, pylons and power stations break the horizon.
They all feed on one thing—King Coal.

Coal is not just on the skyline. It is on the road; thousands of trucks carrying “black gold” travel Mpumalanga’s roads every day. And every third or fourth bears the name “Oosthuizen” in green and white.

We are here, among other things, to interview Frik Oosthuizen, founder of Oosthuizen’s Transport, which owns one of South Africa’s largest coal haulage fleets.

We are not hopeful: we have been warned that he almost never speaks to the media.

We start by chatting to Ian Lines, a long-time resident of Bethal, in the heart of the coalfields. He owns Hi-Line panel beaters. “It was a beautiful town until the coal trucks came,” he says. “It’s lovely for my business but no one else’s. Guys cut corners, they’re tired, overworked.”

Hi-Line cashes in on the damage to smaller vehicles.

Eskom alone has 1 800 trucks, making 5 000 coal deliveries to power stations in Mpumalanga each day. The stations burn 10-million tons a month.

Last year an average of 2 500 trucks were estimated to be on the road during every 24-hour cycle, each carrying up to 34 tons of coal.

Bethal’s roads have taken a hammering: a street through town, which becomes the R35 to Witbank, is rutted and potholed.

Coal trucks stand on most of the open spaces in or around the town.

Kevin Dell, owner of Bethal’s The Lodge bed-and-breakfast, says that although coal has been good to the local economy, the benefits have come at a price.

“Bethal has had to pay the price for the power cuts,” he says. “You hear that in the distance, like thunder?” he asks, pointing towards a distant roar. “It’s coal trucks.”

The tarmac on the nearby crossroads is deeply corrugated. As empty trucks pass through, they give out an unholy rattle.

Bethal is certainly growing. The local Spar has expanded, a Sasol petrol station is to open soon, as well as a string of restaurants, including Steers and Debonairs. Farmers have sold out to mines for millions. A new tyre retreading plant is also set to open.

But the downside has in the past prompted threats by residents and local farmers to close off the town’s roads. Fifty-five accidents and 16 deaths caused by trucks led to a 24-hour shutdown for all Eskom coal vehicles in August.

But Eskom is determined not to be caught with its pants down, as it was during last January’s power crisis. Coal stockpiles now stand at 35,9 days.

Leaving Bethal for Witbank, we drive past the monstrous Duvha power station. The sheer size of its concrete chimneys is a stark reminder of what is needed to keep South Africa running. Duvha is one of 11 power stations in the region, three of which are being returned to service.

Outside Witbank we arrive at Exxaro’s new Inyanda open-cast colliery. We are taken up to where raw coal from the pit is fed into the mine’s huge tip-bin, in the first processing stage. From here it is crushed, sorted, washed and sorted again until it joins one of the three main stockpiles, ready for haulage.

Mud and coal dust quickly coat boots, clothing and skin.

Wearing earplugs that barely keep out the roar of the machines, we walk through the plant.

Exxaro will produce 48-million tons of coal this year, about 75% of it for Eskom.

But only up to 30% of Eskom’s total coal is moved in this way, and of that only 25% is transported “free on truck” (FOT) by private contractors.

The majority of Eskom’s coal is loaded on conveyor belts that travel straight from the mines to the power stations.

True to form, Oosthuizen and his three sons, who help to run the business, will not see us. But Danie Baard, Oosthuizen’s financial director, tells us that over the past year FOT transport has been the main concern - particularly the extensive subcontracting to inexperienced and ill-equipped transport companies.

FOT truckers tend to be under-resourced, under-skilled, overworked and underpaid, Baard says. And they get disproportionate bonuses for exceeding their targets, providing an incentive for reckless driving.

Oosthuizen’s, 60% owned by black business consortium Safika, seems to be a relatively efficient, well-oiled machine.

The company’s Middelburg depot houses a control centre where all its vehicles are monitored by a satellite tracking system imported from the United States. This makes sense because each rig costs about R1,5-million. Each truck is carefully watched from the moment it starts up: how fast it travels, even when it idles.

Baard says Eskom and his company are working hard to improve road conditions. Oosthuizen’s does most of its business for the mines, often moving and mixing stockpiles, freighting only 3% directly for Eskom.

Since 2006 Eskom has spent R480-million on road repairs in the province, while Oosthuizen’s spends about R3-million a year on fixing public roads.

Eskom subsidiary Rotran also oversees the flow of trucks that feed its power stations, to manage traffic more effectively. Rotran has “rented” 18 traffic cops from the local authorities.

Oosthuizen’s has made a number of recommendations to Eskom aimed at redressing the damaging spin-offs of coal haulage, including a halt to subcontracting, driver training, driver blacklisting and the building of a bulk haulage road network.

Maintenance costs rule out a shift towards rail.

“It’s our understanding that it’s up to 13 times more expensive to maintain rail than to maintain road,” Baard points out.

In addition, the mines could last for less time than it would take to develop new rail systems.

And although Eskom concedes that Mpumalanga’s coalfields will not feed its power stations in the region indefinitely, that does not mean South Africa is about to shift to renewable energy sources.

The next coal-bearing area earmarked for exploitation is the Waterberg in Limpopo province.
Coal, it seems, is here to stay.

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