/ 8 August 2023

Communities weigh up environmental harm with ‘social’ benefits when it comes to mining licences

Illegal Mining
The City of Johannesburg has recorded an increase in illegal mining activities, which include tunnelling on the road reserve, below road surfaces and excavations of bridge embankments in recent years. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe announced in January an exploration campaign to open mine sites in Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape, which have been identified as a “new mining belt”. 

Transitional minerals are key to the energy, mobility and digital transition and include platinum group minerals (PGMs), lithium, cobalt and copper. South Africa is endowed with PGMs and manganese. Many Industrialised states have identified these minerals as “critical” and a new rush for cooperation and business with many mineral-rich states is underway especially in light of the 2015 climate change Paris Agreement.

New exploration and mining projects will require mining licences. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to open new mines across the world, including in South Africa, without community buy-in. This is largely because it is no longer enough to convince people of the social benefits of mining such as jobs and “development”. Instead, people are increasingly weighing potential social benefits with the negative environmental impacts of mining, particularly in the context of climate change and a just transition. It becomes even more difficult for companies to justify mining when there have been no material benefits for communities. 

This has major implications for the supply of transitional minerals. 

One can argue that the “social licence to operate” — as a means to manage social tensions and contestations against mining — no longer captures the reality on the ground. Instead, the Sustainable Licence to Operate (SDLO) better captures these shifts. 

The Xolobeni community’s resistance to the proposed mining for ilmenite, titanium-iron oxide, rutile, zircon, and leucoxene on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast has become the symbol of resistance to mining in South Africa. It dates back to 2002 with the discovery of rare minerals and the granting of a mining right by the mineral resources department to Mineral Sand Resources (MSR). The mining right was later suspended after it was challenged by the Amadiba Crisis Committee. In 2015, Transworld-Energy, a subsidiary of MSR, filed for another mining rights application. In 2018, the community again challenged the mining right and the Pretoria high court ruled that without consent from the community, no mining can occur — unless the state expropriates the land.

The Xolobeni community proposed an alternative developmental path in the form of ecotourism. I visited Xolobeni in 2019, the beaches are serene, the sea blue to greenish, and nothing Camps Bay could ever live up to. More importantly, people have land, they fish and farm and the animals roam freely on vast green stretches of land. The community has a life of dignity. Without a doubt, there is potential for an eco-tourist economy with the right investments by the government.

The Xolobeni community is not the only community resisting mining. The Makhasaneni community is against Jindal Africa’s proposed open cast R30 billion iron ore mine in Entembeni in northern Kwazulu-Natal. The Entembeni Crisis Forum’s petition against mining is gaining momentum, with almost 5 000 signatures collected since late July. Although some residents support the mine, others, including the farming community, are against the harmful environmental impacts the mine will have on water sources and crops. The area is a producer of fruit and nuts. In addition, the mine says about 350 households will be relocated, but the forum says that based on the map, about 3 000 households may be affected. The social and environmental impact assessments are still being completed. 

The Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, the Global Environmental Trust and other NGOs are contesting an environmental impact assessment and the public participation process of Petmin’s Tendele coal mine in Somkhele, Kwazulu-Natal. The community approached the court to block an expansion and restart of the mine. The Pietermaritzburg high court delivered a judgment in early July giving the green light for the mine’s expansion to continue. 

The Somkele mine employed about 1 600 people and since the mine stopped working, it has been described as a “ghost town” with only 22 workers on site. The dispute in the poverty-stricken area is between community members, workers, businesses linked to the mine and the mine itself. The National Union of Mineworkers, representing the workers, is another strong proponent of the mine. Some have described it as the environmentalists versus the rest. In their report in BusinessLive, Jaco Visser and Natasha Marria write, “At its heart, this dispute revolves around environmental legislation and the impact of mining operations on the environment and on local communities” and calls into question whether there can be a “just” in the “transition”. 

The local economy of Somekele largely depends on the mine. Like many South African mining communities, through Social Labour Plans (SLPs), mines have absorbed a part of the traditional role of the state through the provision of local infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. But SLPs have also become contentious. They are not integrated with local economic development plans and mining companies sometimes default on delivery. Over the years, SLPs have been one way to obtain a social licence to operate. The prospects of employment for the community was another but the Xolobeni and Somkhele resistance to mining shows that this has changed. 

There is also an increasing awareness of people’s rights as it relates to the environment. Human rights and environmental cases have risen on the continent, including in Nigeria, where Ogoni farmers approached a Netherlands court about oil spills by Shell’s subsidiary. Shell was ordered to compensate the farmers and to rehabilitate the land. In addition, a new claim against Shell in a UK court for oil related pollution and compensation dating back to 1989 is being pursued by more than 11 000 people from Nigeria’s southeastern oil-producing region. These claims also indicate the increasing awareness of people’s rights as it relates to the environment. About 54 oil spills have been recorded by Shell in the region, damaging vast areas of mangrove forest, killing fish in rivers and leaving people without a sustainable source of food and livelihood. 

Sustainable jobs are also becoming a major consideration because some mines close and leave behind negative consequences of mining such as deforestation, land resettlement, and water and air pollution. This is certainly the case of Somkhele where jobs are being weighed against the environmental costs. 

Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, is facing the “Kabwe case”. Earlier this year, a South African court was tasked with determining whether a class action by a Zambian community in the “world’s most toxic town” would be allowed to proceed. According to pollution experts, lead poisoning may be linked to the damaged brains and other organs of generations of children who live in Kabwe. 

According to Antonio Maria Afonso Pedro, director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa Sub-regional Office for Central Africa, it is now more appropriate to speak of a “Sustainable Development License to Operate”, which measures success not only on the basis of the benefits and returns of mining but also the observance of the highest environmental, social, and governance standards. The SDLO also recognises that there needs to be a harmonisation of all standards that govern the mining sector to ease the administrative burden on implementing governments and companies. In addition, the SDLO recognises sustainability as a conditionality, as it becomes more prominent, must be more stringent and go far beyond corporate social responsibility minimum standards and include means for industry to be held accountable for negative impacts. 

The SDLO raises important questions for the government and industry as it relates to the governance of mining both domestically and internationally. It also raises the importance of consultation and consent where loopholes have been used in the past. Many communities demand free prior and informed consent to participate fully and meaningfully in the decisions that will affect their environment. The current contestations against mining are an indication that social benefits, or even the promise of beneficiation, is not enough. Although South Africa has a strong environmental legal framework, land rights are still precarious. A balancing act will be required from the government to protect human and environmental rights especially in the context of a rush for critical minerals. 

Sikho Luthango is a Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung programme manager.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.