Mining's Toxic Legacy for the People of Dannhauser - Profits extracted leaving behind poverty and polluted land and water

By Nkanyiso Mthombeni and Robby Mokgalaka - 16 March 2020.

A very sensitive matter that has surfaced in Dannhauser KwaZulu-Natal which is a small coal mining town in northern part of the province. The town has suffered close to a century of coal mining and has had several issues of environmental injustice cases that have haunted the people and the communities at large way back from the apartheid past to our democratic present.   Mining has brought sadness and poverty to the people of the area.

Like apartheid forceful relocations and grave extraction without proper rituals and compensation to the families concerned is the practice of the past and of present.   Abandoned and unrehabilitated mines are scattered around our lands.  The coal and corporate profit has been extracted and the people are left with polluted lands, water and poverty. 

One such mine is the Durnacol Mine that closed 24 years ago but the community remains with the discarded heap of mine waste and that blows across people neighbourhoods and pollutes the are that people rely on for life.

The state of the Durnacol community has been low-balled - abandoned - by the Amajuba District and Dannhauser Municipality and nothing has been done in challenging Department of Mineral and Resources and Energy to come on board and do something about the hazardous state of the abandoned mine.

As we fight the expansion of mining activity in our communities, we urge people to see the extraction sector as an enemy.  We have seen recent mining rights proposals increasing in the very same region that has been struck by this mining catastrophe in the past and present.

Peoples' health is compromised on many levels.  Of great concern is government's community health care hospital built in Dannhauser, just 2km from the Durnacol abandoned mine. The Department of Health should provide hospitals that make people well, and not ill.  It should be a place of healing not illness.  This government facility which started its operation in 2015, is now posing a huge threat to its workers and the community that it's delivering services to. I've been approached by the workers who are seeing fatal cracks on the walls of this building widening day by day and they now fear for their safety. The sad part is that this infrastructure is only 5 years in existence and had cost R90 million to build, on a shaky ground that was previously heavily mined. The facility is now a threat to the community and employees of the Department of Health. The reason the building is in this state is because this was an old mining site, and the walls are cracking as the land subsides after mining.  The Durnacol shaft number 2 was right where the hospital is now built.

Sadly, some members of the community are not aware nor suspicious as this matter has been treated with utmost secrecy – the public has no information or report on the situation.  There is a clear lack of democracy and closure of public spaces to get this information.  We need an open democracy that allows informed questioning of the decision-makers and policy-makers who continue to grant mining rights in the area and around this region. The authorities completely fail to acknowledge the sad reality which mining exposes society to which is poor health, polluted lands etc.  Thus people are challenging what is happening and workers are also joining in supporting these challenges.  The call for no mining in our communities is becoming a broad call.

This case is a textbook symbol of environmental injustice and deadly costs that results from mining activity.  These experiences also increases the sensitivity of the community to resist such 'development', bearing in mind the aftermath.

I've been fortunate to be referred to the system manager of the hospital about the state of this building – he is fully aware of it. The Department of Health is also downplaying this issue, the hospital being built on a mining area and the fact that this puts people's lives at huge and unnecessary risk.  I hope that the struggle to improve the hospital is related to our struggle of challenging the ongoing mining of coal in the area.  The links must be considered and understood in the context of our demand to campaign to keep the coal on the ground.

It is evidently clear that the government prioritizes mining companies and their activities at expense of the wellness and safety of people. The destruction of the environment by mining and impact on the lives of people have long been brought to the attention of the government, but always fell on deaf ears.

Back in 2015, various national Portfolio Committee representatives were invited by groundWork to visit the Highveld to witness for themselves coal-affected communities in the area and hear from community people from around the country about the coal mining impacts on their lives. Only few Portfolio Committee members turned up and very little has been done to date.

In 2017, groundWork again assisted the coal-affected communities to visit the national parliament to convey the same message to the various Portfolio Committees, hoping that the attendance from the Committees would improve, there was still less attendance and from those whom we engaged with, yet there was less action.

In 2018 Newcastle, groundWork also assisted the affected communities by developing memorandums to hand over to Mr. Gwede Mantashe (Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy) in both the KZN Mining Indaba and Mining Charter consultation event, calling upon the Minister to take action against the Ikwezi coal mine that has forcefully relocated people and dug out their graves without proper consultation, the minister failed to respond to the memorandums and the mine is still operating and nothing has been resolved. The government don't care about the people when it comes to mining, it only cares about mining in the pretext of profit making under the guise of development. If it is development, why are people left to suffer at the expense of this development? Who is this development for? 

We need a development plan for South Africa, not an extractives plan.

Nkanyiso Mthombeni is a community activist from NEJA (Newcastle Environmental Justice Alliance) in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal and Robby Mokgalaka is groundWork's Coal Campiagner

This article appeared in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News.