Segorong community ousted to make way for mine expansion

The mine dominates half of their valley, and it is moving them to get at the other half.

The community, Segorong, is a jarring turn off one of the many tar roads that are opening up the mineral-rich valleys of the Olifants River. The road is brand-new, as are the bridges that span the mighty river – previously, some communities had to rely on pulleys to get across.

The road starts at the booming regional capital of Burgersfort. A decade ago the town was one of many that forced motorists to slow down for a few minutes on the highway from Polokwane to Nelspruit. Now it is the southern anchor of the 160km corridor of mining that winds its way to Polokwane. The influx of wealth means shopping centres are going up so quickly their pavements are still being laid as people stream inside to buy designer Italian shoes.

The fast-food chains are so new that the shrubs around them are just poking their heads out of the earth. And the local municipal buildings still hold the gleam of fresh red brick – the chosen style for government buildings in Limpopo. The row of luxury vehicles in the municipal car park ferry political elites to the new housing estates on the greener side of Burgersfort – the opposite side from the townships.

It is one of these townships –  Praktiseer – that will become home to the people standing in the way of the mine in Segorong. Construction is still going on, but most of the squat grey houses are ready for occupancy. Herds of cattle are being moved to pastures further away, but the donkeys don't seem to be listening. They like the green grass from the deep sewage ponds that have been emptied, but not rehabilitated, to make way for the township.

Talane Moage has been appointed by the mine as an intermediary, and he says R100-million has been spent on building the new township. With 218 houses already built, that works out at R459 000 a house.

Rhino Minerals
The process of moving the community started in 2001, when the owners of the andalusite mine in Segorong,  Rhino Minerals, approached them.  At the time Rhino Minerals got people to sign a contract that said they would give up claim to their land in exchange for a house in Praktiseer and R5 000 to help them to move. The local graveyard would also be moved.

But the people are not happy with the deal they are getting. The land where their village lies might be rocky and not suitable for farming, but their yards are large and their livestock can wander. The few dozen houses are made of mud – the only brick buildings are the bottlestore/shop and school – but each family has a few houses on their property, enough so that each generation has its own.

In the midday heat everyone is outside, sitting in the shade of their houses on meticulously swept verandahs. On the side of the valley furthest from the mine, Ron Maraba is walking around his large compound. There are three houses and a covered lapa for cooking. A small kraal at the bottom of the yard holds his goats.

Leaning on the wall of his house, which has a zinc roof anchored by rocks and tyres, he says he works at the mine. It is the only employer in the area. Burgersfort is 40km away – R42 return by taxi. With travel that expensive he has to accept the R4 500 a month he earns at the mine as a technician.

Although it is all they have, he says the mine has to do more to help the community. "It does nothing for us. We have jobs and a salary, but it is nothing for what we do … they could at least help in other ways," he says.

When he started work he was sent to a doctor "to be checked". "They wanted to make sure we were fit to work." But that was the last time he got any medical assistance. And people who get injured on the job? Their contracts find a way of coming to an end, he says.

His father, Abisai, may not have worked in the grey slag heaps of the mine, but he also thinks the mine could pay a bit more. "It has to be something more, maybe R7000. What they wanted in Marikana is crazy they can only get that kind of salary if people lose their jobs. But there has to be something in between, you cannot live on what people get here," he says.  

He is eking out an existence on his pension, and laughs when asked how he makes ends meet. "This is why you have a family; you share." And the move to Praktiseer will only make life harder. The community cannot take their livestock, so they will be stranded in a township, totally dependent on the state, he says.

Although he worries about this, he worries more about his children. As a member of the school's governing board, he says they were first told that a school would be built in Praktiseer to replace the one in Segorong. Now he hears the children might be incorporated into other schools in the area.

This ignorance of what's happening is something the community has become used to. Most of the people I spoke to do not know what is happening, just that they will have to move and they will get a revised sum of R12 500 to do so.

In conversations in people's yards and in larger gatherings – here people sit in a circle on chairs to talk to guests – it is clear the community does not know what it has to gain.

Some, like Thsepeso Seroka, say it could be a chance to get a job in Burgersfort. A matric graduate, she has never had a job. "There is no work here. I have tried. So maybe I can get a job there, otherwise I will stay living with my family." For a young woman the chances of work are far, far less than those for a man, she says.

The older people do not want to move, if all they get is some money and a house. In the middle of the village, surrounded by children, Joseph Mmala is happy to welcome strangers into his yard. The smile on his face widens as he looks at his youngest children posing for the camera. But as soon as the topic of conversation turns to the mine, he scowls.

"The management here are fucking bad. In other mines they are bad, but here it is much worse," he says. The move does not appeal to him. The seven members of his family will be moving into a house with two bedrooms, and he will have to take a mine bus to and from work. The thought of his children having to start again, in a new place and a much bigger school, worries him the  most.

Dressed in blue mine work clothes, his smile only returns when his five-year-old daughter clambers on to his lap. A drill operator for 21 years, he is about to go back on shift.

The village's chief, Bafedile Morophane, has a copy of every scrap of paper that has been given to the community. The first contract comes with the stamp of one of the country's biggest law firms, and wording to match. Each sentence is qualified and comes with a sub section that refers to another document and more attachments.

This is a problem in an area where illiteracy is high. The chief says the old and people who did not understand the contract signed because they were told the move would be good. A few of these – who lived where the mine has already expanded – have already gone to Praktiseer.

Moage, the mine-appointed intermediary, says that a trust is also being created to supplement the money and house that people will be receiving. This is still being finalised but will mean that the community owns 5% of Rhino Minerals. The annual dividend will be used as the community wishes, he says.

The community's self-appointed activist, Victor Mapanga, is quick to seize on the presence of the Mail & Guardian to show the problems the community has. He wants to know whether this means that the SABC will also be coming.

"Why should we move? This is our home. We were born here and many of our ancestors still lie in this valley," he says. During apartheid, parts of the community were forced to move here by the army to make space for another mine and its white workforce a few kilometres down the road in Penge. And now he says the same thing is happening, just without the overt use of force.  

In desperation to get someone to listen he turned to local Democratic Alliance councillor Joseph Kgwedi. Kgwedi says he has only started investigating the story, but it seems like the "typical Limpopo story". There are rumours of money exchanging hands and cattle dying from the dirty grey water seeping out of the mine. Kgwedi says this process is being repeated along the length of the platinum corridor to Polokwane.

"We are told these mines are the great promise, but they are awful. They come here and do nothing for communities, just destroy the environment and make people sick. And in a few years they will leave and someone will have to clean up," he says.

In Praktiseer, families have already started adding on to the houses they have just moved into. One has a zinc shack attached – space for the large family that moved from a comfortably sized compound to a house with two bedrooms and a small kitchen and dining area. The electricity is sporadic and the water dubious at best.



Water licence

A small stream runs through the valley that holds Segorong and the Rhino Minerals mine. In certain parts the grey sludge from the mine's waste mountains is trickling into its waters. No tests have been done on this water, but the non-government organisation  that brought water to the village felt concerned enough to get water upstream of the mine.

This water should not be flowing in the first place. Linda Page, spokesperson for the department of water affairs, says the mine has never had a water-use licence. It has applied for a licence for its new operations, but this was rejected. The mine is not on the list of 53 mines operating illegally that Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs, gave to Parliament.

Page says mines operating without a licence are a huge problem. "We see this often. They apply for a licence to mine, and only after this they might apply for a water licence, even though you have to have both."

Her recommendation is for the department of mineral resources  to have a unit that ensures mines have a water licence before giving them a mining licence.

This is something both ministers are working on. Molewa has made several references to ongoing talks with mineral resources. Susan Shabangu, its minister, recently told journalists to be ready for  a press conference at which they would release their plans to address the environmental concerns that have been raised about mines.

Rhino Minerals directed all attempts to get comment to its parent company, Samrec. Attempts to get Samrec to comment failed.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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