Government no longer ore-struck
It’s a whisper in the air, a signal that the pro-mining winds might be shifting direction. After a century of enjoying a hegemonic relationship with all other departments, mineral affairs has started to face opposition from its peers. People in those departments say they are getting bolder about confronting the mining department monolith.
“Mining always enjoyed dominance. We received applications and granted them because it created jobs and earned the country money,” says a mid-level official at Limpopo’s provincial mining department.
The official adds that, while other departments might have complained about some decisions, they had little political capital to do much more. But “things are changing”.
The argument of old – trotted out to justify the need to divert a river or dig up farmland – was simple: mining creates jobs and brings in foreign currency. Mining still contributes 5% of South Africa’s gross domestic product and brings in half of all foreign exchange revenue, according to the Chamber of Mines.
Coal mining enjoys the further benefit of supplying Eskom. The industry has also been intimately linked to dynastic families and politicians. Rights have been given as patronage. Groups opposing mining have been crippled by the shortage of serious research into the effects of mining – such as in healthcare and water treatment costs.
As a result, mining has gone ahead when other departments have objected. In 2014, the Mpumalanga legislature created the Mabola Protected Environment. This sought to safeguard three rivers that started in the mountains of the area.
In terms of the law, commercial mining can only happen in a protected area when both the mining and environment ministers give their permission.
But eight months later, the minerals department gave permission to Indian-owned Atha Africa Ventures to mine inside Mabola.
In Limpopo, the environment and water departments were obliged to make concessions to allow Coal of Africa to build a mine next to the Limpopo River and the Mapungubwe National Park.
When opposed, mining companies have used the courts and their influence to ensure mining goes ahead.
Three years ago, Mpumalanga parks officials locked the gate to the Barberton Nature Reserve and refused a mining company entry. It had been granted a prospecting right. The mine went to court, asking that it be guaranteed entry because it had been granted the right to do so.
In the same province, Msobo Coal formally opposed the declaration of the 6?000??hectare Chrissiesmeer Protected Environment. This sought to turn a water catchment area into a no-go zone for mining, but Msobo wanted to prospect for coal. In that case, the environment won.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to nine officials at national and provincial level in the environment, water and tourism departments.
They say that developments such as Msobo have started to shift the balance of power towards nonmining considerations.
Damage caused by abandoned mines. (Paul Botes, M&G)
A senior parks official in the Eastern Cape says: “Mining has run roughshod over all other considerations, but now its argument is getting weaker [thanks to a fall in commodity prices and fewer jobs in the sector].”
The officials say this means their departments have been able to be more vocal in their opposition to mining – just not in public.
This opposition comes in the form of expert-authored documents written to challenge the assumptions made by mines when they apply for rights, and in phone calls to municipal officials to explain the advantages that come with increased tourism, for example.
This appears to be working. In one instance, Ibutho Coal – which is trying to get permission to mine on the border of the iMfolozi reserve in KwaZulu-Natal – was forced to go back, change and resubmit its environmental impact assessment.
In Limpopo, the provincial tourism department rejected an application by Aquila Steel to mine outside Thabazimbi.
It cited climate change concerns, saying the country has to “effectively adapt to, and manage, unavoidable and potentially damaging climate change impacts”.
Ecosystems at the site created “natural solutions that build resilience and help society adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change”.
Earlier this year, the 1 200MW Thabametsi coal-fired power station in Limpopo was told to go back to the drawing board and take six months to conduct a climate change impact assessment.
In the Western Cape, the provincial environment department has submitted a serious objection to a proposed uranium mine in the Karoo.
Where overt opposition is not possible for political or other reasons, the officials say their departments take other measures.
Chief among these is to declare protected areas where mining is expected.
In the case of fracking in the Karoo, the Mountain Zebra-Camdeboo Corridor Project was declared this year, right across a large swath of land under prospecting rights.
A handful of reserves have been declared in Mpumalanga to the same end.
But these cases are still not in the majority. Bobby Peek, of nongovernmental organisation groundWork, says that, although there has been a noticeable increase in the number of departments challenging mines, the system allows mines to get around the objections.
Mines simply tweak their impact assessments so they seem to address the concerns and resubmit them, he says. “Government can then say yes with some sort of sick conscience.”
Louis Snyman, from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, says that, although there are “some early trends” showing greater opposition to mining, this is often down to individuals in government.
“This happens from time to time when new people are put into decision-making positions and some change is effected,” he says. “Unfortunately, this is short-lived and the people are replaced.”