There is a mine in my area. You might think that my village is well off because of it and that we have high employment levels, thriving businesses, good roads, schools and clinics.
The reality is very different. Having a mine as a neighbour often means runoff from mining operations are poisoning streams and rivers, which jeopardises people’s health. It means breathing in fine dust that causes respiratory illnesses and premature death. It means having to deal with mine blasts whose strong vibrations crack walls and damage windows and furniture. It means giving up fertile grazing land and fields essential to people’s livelihoods to make way for mining.
People in mining-affected communities have to put up with all of this, yet seldom do they get the job they were promised. When they try to raise their voice about these problems they are threatened, intimidated and silenced.
These are just some of my experiences as a public-interest environmental lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights working closely with mining-affected communities.
The Constitution guarantees everyone a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing. It gives everyone rights to freedom of expression and to assemble and protest peacefully.
These rights are essential for people facing injustices from mines so that they can raise their grievances and demand compliance with the law and the protection of their health. The government has an obligation to ensure that these rights are protected and realised.
Instead, the brave activists I work with and who raise their voices to demand governmental oversight of mining operations face dangerous repercussions for exercising their rights. Often they also struggle to receive basic information about proposed or operating mines so that they can participate in the approval process.
Unknown agents threaten, attack and even kill activists. Rarely are these incidents adequately investigated. When activists resort to protest to assert their rights, they are met with unlawful and burdensome requirements by municipalities.
Such misapplication of the laws governing protests often leads to unnecessary police intervention, with increased risk of police violence and unlawful arrests. Activists also face harm from other actors such as mine security personnel. All of this serves to create an environment of fear that dissuades people from voicing their concerns.
The environmental ramifications of mining affect women the most. Therefore, they are often on the front lines speaking out. This makes them targets for harassment and attacks. When government fails to adequately condemn and investigate such attacks, it emboldens the perpetrators and further exacerbates the problem the country already has with gender-based violence and abuse of women.
The Centre for Environmental Rights has collaborated with Groundwork, Human Rights Watch and Earthjustice to document many such incidents of human rights abuses. Our joint report, We Know Our Lives Are in Danger: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-affected Communities, reveals that threats, attacks, municipal harassment and police violence are not isolated incidents. It also urges government and mining companies to take action to respect the rights of these activists and to protect them.
Government needs to condemn the harassment and intimidation of activists. Local authorities must be directed to comply with the obligations in the Constitution to respect, protect and promote human rights.
The government must, however, not only ensure that activists can peacefully protest; government officials must listen when they do. The departments of mineral resources, environmental affairs and energy need to guarantee that citizens are adequately informed of the environmental risks they face from current and proposed mining operations, and adopt policies to regulate mining operations properly by holding companies accountable when they cause environmental degradation and endanger people’s health.
I believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution, and I work with people all over South Africa to ensure that those rights don’t only exist on paper, but are seen and felt in their everyday lives.
The profits earned from our natural resources are not worth the price of undermining our constitutional principles in the process of extracting these resources.
We cannot place any right above the other and should recognise that the right to protest and the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing are connected and reinforce each other. That is the only way we can live up to our commitments to our citizens.