Balancing ancestry with consumer demand

South Africa’s beauty, diverse culture and heritage are constantly under pressure, with its plentiful — but unrenewable — mineral resources plucked out to meet the insatiable demand of mining houses from around the world to make everyday products we take for granted.

Heritage is priceless, but it simply does not feature enough on government’s agenda of priorities. Instead of government using it for social cohesion, it is usually left to activists and communities to protect and preserve heritage sites.

Economic development has the biggest impact, with government justifying the granting of mining licenses against the need to create employment. But according to human rights activist Juliana Thornton of the Mupo Foundation, one example of misleading numbers is the Vele coal mine, located close to the Mapungubwe Heritage site.

“Coal of Africa (CoAL) promised that the colliery would create 826 jobs,” says Thornton. “Before its closure in 2013 the total number of jobs at the mine was less than half of this — 342 jobs, and post-closure with retrenchments, there are currently only 187 jobs — less than a quarter promised. 

“More often than not, local people lack the skills mines need, so migrant labour is deployed. A whole new set of community problems arise as village populations swell, putting more pressure on sensitive sites.”

Thornton says there is now another mine planned nearby: the Mopane coal mine near Makhado, but it is strongly resisted by the local communities. 

“The proposed mine would operate for 50 years but would deplete the province of water, to the extent that it would take 100 years before the water table is renewed,” says Thornton. “Where there is no water, there is no life. There is only enough coal to benefit a few, for a few years, not to mention further damage to the environment through the continued use of fossil fuels.

“Proponents of the mine promise 917 jobs over the course of its operation, a number that pales in comparison to the potential loss of up to 11 000 jobs in the agriculture and tourism sectors as a result of the destruction the mine would create, which would last well beyond its closure. And if Vele mine is anything to go by, CoAL is unlikely to deliver on its promises.”

According to activists, the proposed mine would threaten sensitive ecosystems, destroy the habitat of the Cape Vulture and over 50 graves, as well as other heritage sites in the area.

Sacred sites

It represents a major human rights abuse where there is destruction, removal and relocation of graves to make way for mining, and it is especially painful for communities whose spirituality and identity is based on communion with their ancestors, as are the cases at both Mapungubwe and the Wild Coast.

Explains Thornton: “The location of the graves is carefully chosen, differing according to local customs, hence ancestors are buried in particular places that will ensure their peace in the afterlife. If they are moved the spirits of the ancestors may be lost to the living descendants and this can cause great anxiety and stress.

“In the Fuleni communities of KwaZulu-Natal, this has become a major issue. They believe that once the ancestors have found peace in the earth, they should never be disturbed.

“When mining companies move graves, they often do not erect tombstones or complete the proper procedures, which is in direct contravention of rights to identity for descendants. Exhumation of graves must conform to the standards set out in the Ordinance on Excavations.”

Human remains less than 60 years old are subject to the provisions of the Human Tissue Act, but both acts date back to the apartheid era and are believed to be insufficient for protecting the rights to culture and identity for living communities. There is a need to influence policy and revise the acts to take into account the rights and needs of traditional, rural communities. If mining companies took part in such collaboration, it could positively raise the profile of the mining sector. 

Mainstream legislation concerning informal and communal land rights states that communities should only make a decision to dispose of any such right when a majority of the holders of such rights are present or represented at a meeting convened for the purpose of considering such disposal, and in which they have had a reasonable opportunity to participate.

Presently, this legal provision is sorely neglected; it appears that communities are being misled and given insufficient information about the purposes and outcomes of relinquishing their land. This is another area of opportunity, where mining houses could work with community members and activists to demonstrate responsible mining practices.

“In the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal communities, traditional chiefs claim the right to give away land to mining companies, corporates and governments in a process lacking transparency and not involving the rights of the community,” says Thornton.

“There is also perception that corruption is caused by government when chiefs are on its payroll, causing a split in loyalty. The chiefs feel they owe allegiance to government rather than to their subjects. In the Fuleni communities in KwaZulu-Natal there is a particular problem with the chief, who is believed to support the Ibutho Coal mine, deliberately obstructing the right of communities and refusing to meet to discuss this development, which would displace them.”

There is a pressing need to ensure the majority of community members participate in public meetings concerning development, so that chiefs are unable to make arbitrary, sometimes self-beneficial decisions on their behalf. The mines also need to work at addressing the allegations of bringing “brainwashed” outsiders into meetings to sway approval numbers in their favour.

Conservationist resistance

Unfortunately, even communities that expressly wish to develop their micro-economies through such ways as using the uniqueness of their heritage sites towards tourism still have their voices supressed and even their lives threatened.

Director of the Centre for Civil Society Professor Patrick Bond says: “How mining houses deal with places like Xolobeni and Mapungubwe, local ecologies, the global climate in the case of the Vele coal mine, the South African economy with our dangerously high current account deficit and our society’s political system, in my view helps to justify the very strong community and conservationist resistance towards mining these sites.

“If mining houses were probed, these and other questions, if answered honestly, would not promote solutions favourable to any kind of mining in these and many other sites.

“My sense is that the communities in Xolobeni and Mapungubwe would not find any sort of compromise attractive, given the context of these specific heritage sites. However, it is a great opportunity to see whether there or elsewhere in South Africa, mining companies would respect full cost accounting for the life cycle of the mineral.”

Close call

Not all mining houses are bad guys. Miners of a dolomite deposit close to the Sterkfontein Caves found once it had started underground operations, that it became dangerously close to affecting the caves, and stopped all operations in consideration of the site’s sensitivity.

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Rebecca Haynes
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