The history of South Africa is based on extraction of natural resources and the related dispossession of its population (often referred to as “accumulation by dispossession”). While this is a history that new leaders are trying to move past, we are continually reminded of its central role in our lives. Over the past few years, the toxic chemicals remaining in mine dumps threaten to enter Gauteng’s water supply (including Johannesburg and Pretoria) through acid mine drainage. And the nationalisation of mines, one of the tenets of the ANC’s historical Freedom Charter, has entered into national debate driven by ousted ANC youth leader Julius Malema.

We are no longer merely dealing with a sordid past. South Africa’s government has taken active steps against the country’s natural resources and its people. It is increasingly apparent that the Rights of Mother Nature are desperately needed in South Africa. Over the past months, explosive events and critical decisions included:

Northwest province

The dire straights in which platinum miners live and the low wages paid to workers taking the greatest risk, erupted in wage strikes against Lonmin in Marikana. Although Marikana appeared similar to other mine actions in the area, this had a tragic outcome when the police killed 34 strikers. A legal Commission has been established to investigate the massacre, complicated by competing unions with differing political backing.

Although wages were the direct issue, the desperate living standards of households in the area had just received attention in a July 2012 report by the Benchmarks Foundation which stated:

“Anglo Platinum made R46 billion profit in 2010…..
The situation for those who live in informal settlements around mines is abysmal with overcrowding, a lack of proper sanitation and potable water as well as a lack of electricity the norm.”

Free State

In early September, the Department of Mineral Resources has rescinded its 18 month moratorium on fracking in the Karoo, resulting largely from a national and international anti-fracking campaign, and says that its consultation process with the public will proceed in earnest. As the Karoo is already an extremely dry area, it is not clear where the millions of litres of necessary water will come from. It is also expected that fracking will contaminate scarce water supplies, which was affirmed by a report by the state-funded Water Research Commission that warns the government about the serious risk of water pollution from cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive compounds from fracking. Yet the government has already issued fracking exploration permits in six of the nine provinces, across wide swathes of the country.

(for more information on fracking in South Africa, see my earlier blog “Replacing one problem with another: What’s the Fracking Problem in South Africa?”)

Eastern Cape

For years the community in Xolobeni has been resisting the government granting mining rights to companies to mine the sand dunes for titanium. Mining for titanium would not only have a devastating impact on the pristine natural landscape and ruin options for the locally desired eco-tourism, but it would also have a devastating impact on the area’s water resources. Presently NGOs have reported that the “Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) has decided to grant a mining right to an Australian resources company to mine titanium from the sand dunes in the Xolobeni section of the pristine wild coast. A media statement released by WESSA and Coastwatch last week claims that this fact, far from being announced publicly, was discovered via the Australian Stock Exchange, meaning that the DME has decided not to follow due process and inform interested and affected parties. The Australian mining company Mineral Resources Commodities and its local associates, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources and Xolco, have, apparently, been granted permission to mine the Kwanyana block, situated between the Mnyameni and Kwanyana estuaries. Mining this stretch of coastline will require the construction of access roads, the removal of all homesteads, mealie fields and vegetation, the construction of enormous open sandy pits, the establishment of a network of pipes to move water from waterways to the mine, the installation of electricity to run the heavy machinery required to mine the sand dunes, as well as the necessary infrastructure to support the operation.”

John Clarke, representing local communities and environmental organisations, sent a detailed report on the ongoing mining debacle to Minister Chabane (in the president’s office), asking him to investigate alleged corruption involving high-level officials, the deaths of at least two local community members, the beating of schoolchildren by police, and intimidation of anti-mining residents. (http://mg.co.za/article/2012-06-14-new-coastal-mining-threat)

Limpopo

Although all water projections show a worrying shortfall in water supply and demand, and the Department of Water Affairs plans to turn to desalinisation, two new mega coal-fired power stations–Medupi and Kusile– are being built by the national utility Eskom in Limpopo without a clear view of what the water impacts are likely to be. According to ‘Coal’s hidden water cost to South Africa’ by Greenpeace, a water crisis is looming in South Africa, communities are at risk of losing access to water, and coal is right in the middle of it. Melita Steele from Greenpeace Africa says: “The truth is that in the face of looming electricity price hikes, and a R13.2 billion net profit recorded by Eskom this year, local communities in coal areas may lose their water rights to make way for mines, to help feed Eskom’s coal addiction.”

Already community activists report that water cuts for households are frequent near Kusile, and are presented as a water saving method, while there are no cuts for mines. Already people are being removed from their land and put in urban areas that lack social services, where the quality of water is compromised. Eskom says that it is compulsory to continue until government finds alternative energy sources.

In Medupi, activists report that water comes from the Mokolo dam in this water scarce area, but the local township’s water is cut off any time Medupi wants to open pipes. Infrastructure cannot handle Medupi, where raw sewerage flows into the river and affects households living off the river. They ask: New coal mines have been granted rights – where will we get water and how will our infrastructure cope?

Why are our leaders not asking this question? The Department of Water Affairs has produced a draft National Water Services Development Strategy that does not specify any procedure, guideline or criteria for water allocation at the national level. Instead it aims to please agriculture, private sector, industry, and mining. It is clear to community members that one group will lose… and it looks like it will once again be ordinary South Africans.

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