/ 27 March 2021

Interdict stops coal company from starting mining in one of SA’s water factories

Richard's Bay Coal Terminal
An employee walks past stockpiled of coal for shipping at the Richard's Bay coal terminal, in Richard's Bay. (Dean Hutton/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The high court in Pretoria has issued an interdict preventing a coal-mining company from starting operations at its controversial coal mine in the Enkangala-Drakensberg strategic water source area near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga.

Uthaka Energy, formerly Atha-Africa Ventures, had been due to hold a breaking-ground ceremony on 24 March to celebrate the start of its planned Yzermyn underground colliery, with Mpumalanga premier Refilwe Maria Mtshweni-Tsipane as the chief guest.

The Mail & Guardian has previously reported on fears that the way had been cleared for the company, which has been linked to former president Jacob Zuma’s relatives, to mine for coal in the ecologically-sensitive area, which is home to high-altitude grasslands, highly sensitive wetlands and pans that support endemic plant, bird and animal species, as well as unique and endangered ecosystems. 

On 5 March, a coalition of civil society organisations, which has worked since 2015 to reverse legal approvals for the planned mine, brought an interdict application after Uthaka Energy gave notice of its intention to begin mining activities. 

The coalition had asked the court to order Uthaka Energy to halt commencement until its other pending legal proceedings have been determined. 

The coalition says it is relieved that the court on 23 March granted a reprieve to allow proper judicial assessment of the legal proceedings under way “before environmental harm is caused”.

Protecting strategic water source areas is crucial for South Africa’s water security, and for their ability to provide water for people and for the country’s economic activity, it says.

The coalition, which is represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), includes the Mining and Environmental Justice Communities Network of South Africa, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development and the Bench Marks Foundation

The proposed mining area fell within the Mabola protected environment, a biodiversity-rich protected area declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014, which means commercial mining could go ahead only with the joint permission of the environment and minerals ministers. 

But in January this year, Mpumalanga’s agriculture and environment MEC Vusi Shongwe revoked protected area status to allow the proposed mine to proceed without those permissions “to ensure balance towards the use of natural resources for socioeconomic benefits”.

The court’s order prevents and restrains Uthaka from “conducting any mining activities and mining-related operations … save for survey pegging of the surface infrastructure boundary and wetlands demarcation pegging of the approved plan”. 

Strategic water source areas consist of the 22 water factories that produce half the country’s fresh water, despite comprising just 10% of land area. 

“Coal is South Africa’s past, not its future,” said Bobby Peek, the director of groundwork.

Praveer Tripathi, of Uthaka Energy, said although the company has no comment at this time on the interdict, “Uthaka shares the concerns of the entire mining industry and South African businesses on the implications of this interdict on the new investments including direct foreign investments into the South African economy as well as the adverse impact on job creation. These concerns are no longer limited to the interdict against Uthaka Energy but reach out adversely to the entire economy, whether these consequences were  foreseen or unintended.”

Tripathi said Uthaka would consider its options when the reasons for the order are provided on 30 March.