/ 8 July 2024

Tribute to Samson Mokoena: How a fearless community activist stared down one of South Africa’s biggest polluters

Samson Mokoena. Photo by Thom Pierce


Last Friday, Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance coordinator Samson Mokoena died from pneumonia in his hometown of Vanderbijlpark, in Gauteng. He was just 47 years old.

Mokoena spent most of his adult life as a community environmental justice activist in the Vaal Triangle, one of South Africa’s most polluted areas. Made up of Vanderbijlpark, Vereeniging and Sasolburg, about 60km south of Johannesburg, the Vaal Triangle Airshed was declared a priority air-pollution area in 2004. 

Here, Mokoena dedicated his life to fighting the big corporations that have been polluting the area for decades, and continue to pollute it, and challenging the government to fix the massive air and water pollution that blights the lives and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people living in the area.

I met Mokoena in the early 2010s when the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance  (VEJA) became one of the first clients of the newly established Centre for Environmental Rights. He approached CER with an extraordinary tale of injustice.

Mokoena grew up close to ArcelorMittal’s (formerly Iscor) Vanderbijlpark steel plant, where his father and brother worked. At first, the area had a thriving, vibrant, diverse community but, over time, that community was destroyed by the pollution from the plant. Animals became sick, boreholes became unusable and crops failed. ArcelorMittal — and Iscor before them — steadfastly denied that they were responsible.

Mokoena did not leave the area, like many others who could afford to do so — Iscor bought out many landowners in the area. Instead, he became an activist. The VEJA was formed and started mobilising to get authorities to act and the company to clean up the pollution. 

Around 1999, responding to VEJA’s activism, the then minister of water affairs Kader Asmal forced ArcelorMittal to do a comprehensive environmental impact assessment, resulting in what became known as the ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) Masterplan. 

This masterplan, which took about four years to complete, was an expensive, comprehensive strategy document that contained the results of numerous specialist environmental tests for pollution levels at Vanderbijlpark, as well as AMSA’s plans to address this pollution and rehabilitate its sites over a 20-year period. 

The plan was supposed to address all the environmental effects of the Vanderbijlpark plant — and also to confirm whether, and how far, the pollution spread from the plant. During public consultation, AMSA promised to make the masterplan available to the community so that everyone could see what remediation AMSA had to do.

But when the plan was finalised in 2003, the community was given only a summary report. This failed to answer their questions and left them frustrated and angry.

For the next eight years, the community and VEJA continued to demand the release of the plan, without any success. During this time, very little remediation was done by ArcelorMittal. Moreover, the air pollution from its plant continued unabated.

In December 2011, on behalf of VEJA, CER submitted a request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) for the masterplan. At that stage, requests for access to information from private bodies were not common and companies generally ignored or simply refused such requests, knowing that the only remedy available when requests were refused, whether legitimately or not, was to go to court.

As expected, AMSA refused VEJA’s request for the plan, saying that VEJA could not show that it needed this document to exercise or protect its rights. It also argued, having refused to release the document for 8 years, that the masterplan was, by now, out of date and scientifically flawed. Yet it had been using this very plan to inform its engagement with government departments who were issuing it with licences.

In one of CER’s first court cases, the organisation launched proceedings on behalf of VEJA to enforce its rights under PAIA and the Constitution. AMSA opposed the application. On the day of the court hearing, VEJA members packed the courtroom, emboldened by having forced AMSA management to defend themselves in the high court. Outside, they toyi-toyied and held up the VEJA banner — delighted to have got this far, even before the judgment was handed down.

VEJA won that case, and the high court ordered AMSA to hand over the masterplan. But AMSA was not ready to accept the outcome and went to the supreme court of appeal.

On the morning of the hearing in the appeal court, while it was still dark, VEJA members left Vanderbijlpark to travel by minibus taxi to Bloemfontein to attend the hearing. Outside the austere courtroom with its velvet curtains, they demonstrated and danced.

Victory was soon to follow. In a hard-hitting judgment handed down on 26 November 2014, the court ordered AMSA to release the masterplan and other records to VEJA and to pay VEJA’s legal costs.

The court’s words on AMSA’s lack of good faith in its engagement with VEJA, and the discrepancies between the company’s shareholder communications and its actual conduct at the time, still ring in our ears today: “Corporations operating within our borders … must be left in no doubt that, in relation to the environment in circumstances such as those under discussion, there is no room for secrecy and that constitutional values will be enforced.”

The AMSA-VEJA judgment, which has since been cited in numerous judgments in our courts, would not have existed were it not for Mokoena’s persistence and dedication to challenging the AMSA behemoth. 

In so many ways, this case exemplifies everything that Mokoena stood for — never stop challenging corporations who do harm to communities and the environment. If your cause is just, it should be raised fearlessly in every courtroom and boardroom. Corporations must be transparent and accountable and no corporation is above the law.

Hundreds of thousands of people continue to live in the highly polluted Vaal Triangle. Here, like on the Mpumalanga Highveld, people are deprived of the clean air their bodies need to survive and thrive. Over the past two years, South Africa’s biggest air polluters — Eskom, Sasol and AMSA — have applied, and been given approval, to postpone compliance with parts of health-based minimum emission standards. 

When our government fails to protect citizens from violation of their rights, and instead bends over backwards to help corporations who continue to pay dividends to shareholders, who stands up to protect us? It is activists like Samson Mokoena, at great cost to themselves, and the public interest lawyers who represent them, who have to take matters to the courts. 

Even as Mokoenaleft us last week, VEJA’s latest challenge to AMSA’s attempts to avoid these standards was still pending in the high court.

In the Vaal Triangle, Mokoena’s shift has ended. But the work he started is not yet done. His vision and courage will not be forgotten as we take the battle forward in our courts.

While Mokoena’s activism changed the law, benefiting all of us, what it did not do was give him and his family financial security. If his story has touched you, please consider supporting our fundraising campaign for his children’s education. Every donation matters.

Melissa Fourie is a civil society commissioner on the South African Climate Commission and former executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights.