A Visit to South Africa’s New Coal Heartland: Lephalale

 

Once a quiet farming area, Lephalale is now one of the fastest growing towns in South Africa called the “vibrant city”. The influx of people and commercial activities are connected to the expansion of coal. The Waterberg area is said to contain the last remaining coal reserves in the country as coal in the Mpumalanga region is almost depleted. The plan, which is already in motion, is to open up a host of new coal mines and coal plants, a rail line to transport coal, and a water pipeline. Coal mining companies include the likes of Exxaro and an Australian company Resgen. At 4800MW when completed, Medupi will be one of the biggest coal plants in the world. It’s contemporary Matimba, is designed to generate 4000MW of power and sits across the road from Medupi. Waterberg is notoriously water stressed region and a high priority area for air pollution. The water pipeline, termed the Mokolo Crocodile River Water Augmentation Project or MCWAP, is being developed specifically to deliver water to the coal mines and power stations. Plans for a railway line have been ongoing and hopes to take coal exports out of the country through the Richards Bay terminal on the East Coast of South Africa (SA). There’s also talk about extending the line to Botswana and to the other side through Mozambique’s port.

But coal exacts a huge toll on people and planet. It is a leading driver of climate change, and SA’s huge historical dependence on it has made the country one of the biggest polluters in the world. Coal is also very dirty, generating pollution and causing ill health to communities and workers. Women face the brunt of coal’s ills and have been organizing and mobilizing to defend their rights to health, land, clean water and air.  

The local people who have now been encircled by electric fences erected by coal mining companies like Exxaro, tell of the past where agriculture thrived in this part of the South Africa, tell of the past where rivers would burst their banks because of too much water. All this is now a thing of the past! The rush for coal energy has left the local people living as destitutes on their own land that has been heavily polluted and are being threatened by coal companies for forceful eviction. Andrew Byaruhanga, Uganda


These pictures start to tell that other story about coal and about ‘development’ in coal towns like Lephalale.  

Resgen’s plans for a new coal railway line threatens to evict people off their land

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The Australian company, Resgen is taking the lead in developing a new coal mine called Boikarabelo, and a railway line to transport that coal to the coast is underway. The only obstacle that stands in their way is the rights and dignity of the communities who live on the land they want to forcefully take. WoMin together activists from Colombia, Uganda, Austria, Germany and South Africa visited one of the 37 families being threatened by Resgen with eviction. According to the family members, Resgen has been threatening to evict the family claiming they do not have rightful claim over the land. However, the family has a title deed for the contested land that they got from the then farm owner  

In a letter to the family, Resgen claims the land belong to them. But the family will not budge. Their battle has been a long standing one, which dates before the time of the bullying big new coal mining company’s interests. They have been tossed around and mistreated since Apartheid when white farm owners claimed the land for their own and made them farmworkers. Luckily the white farm owner gave them the title deed for the land before he died. But the brother of the deceased now wants to sell the land to Resgen and is colluding with the company to have them forcefully evicted. Since being moved from their original land which was fertile and used for farming and away from the river where they got their water, they sit on a land barely able to sustain them. They now survive off a social grant which the gogo (grandmother) gets every month, and they use most of that money for food for their donkey. The donkey is used for transport, to the clinic when a family member is sick and to go to the shops in the town.

But they do have their land rights and they are holding firm to their decision to stay on their land.

I was fortunate to be part of the group who visited Lephalale in order to meet some communities in a difficult situation confronting the very heart of an extractivist project based on the massive exploration and extraction of coal for the generation of electric energy. It’s painful an outrageous to see how people’s lives and rights are crushed in order to satisfy the egoistic and immoral aspiration for profit and accumulation. Right in the middle of immense wealth the local communities are pushed away from their livelihoods, their territories and condemned to live miserably in inhumane conditions especially affecting women and children, girls and boys.

My conclusion is that we are facing a crisis of civilization which is based in the extractivist model: destruction of live is being globalized and victims are being generated everywhere. Equally in Lephalale (South Africa) as in Cerrejón (Colombia) I meet the same victims and the same aggressors; the same interests and the same companies; the same faces of exclusion and the same gazes drowning in suffering. If humanity does not move towards overcoming extractivism-capitalism, it does not have any options left on earth. I would like to express my active solidarity with the communities of Lephalale and in all the corners of the world where they fight and defend life and they teach us dignity by their resistance against the Thanatos (god of death in Greek mythology) of extractivism. Juan Eugenio Guerrero, Corporación de Apoyo a Comunidades Populares, CODACOP, Colombia.   

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As we were approaching the monstrous Medupi Power Station, a soft rain and a hard wind started up bringing a storm of ash towards us. Suddenly we were engulfed in the storm. We had to stop at the side of the road for 15 minutes until the storm cleared and we could see the road in the front of us. The mountainous ash pile lies just behind the power station and is uncovered. Ash is created from the burning of coal and has a load of highly toxic pollutants in it such as arsenic, lead, mercury, barium, boron and chlorine. People like the family described above, who live nearby the ash dump stand a 1 in 50 chance of cancer. It is almost certain that Eskom is not paying sick families for when Medupi’s ash makes them sick. When families get sick from coal pollution, it is also usually the women who have to take care of them, suffering themselves from the burden of coal and their gendered responsibilities.

What we saw in the Lephalale region appears to be anachronistic predatory exploitation of people and nature, which is the unfortunate reality of people living in the area. On one side, you see desperate families that are lacking water and obviously suffering from the consequences of climate change, on the other side you can see water pipelines bypassing the communities in order to supply the newly built coal plants wtih its huge smoke stacks that are clearly part of the problem rather than the solution. Isabella Wieser, DKA Austria

 

Paprika: Where Matimba makes life hot & dangerous

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The township of Paprika stands just 100 metres away from the menacing Matimba coal power station. At a meeting with the resident’s steering committee, they explained how people flooded in to the area because they thought that the power station would bring jobs. But the jobs didn’t come and people are struggling to make a living. Paprika is proud though that they maintain a great community, with no crime, some facilities like a creche, and a responsible way to resolve disputes between residents. They believe that they will grow and thrive if they were given some facilities from government like solar energy. No one has any power from the power station even though the lines pass directly over their homes. In fact, the people whose homes are just under the power lines complained to us that they feel the very strong current in their homes and think that if they did get power from these lines they would face an explosion.

To open new coal mines and build now coal-fired power-plants is an attack on the world’s climate and thus on the survival of us all. But not only nature suffers: we could clearly see that this powerful system is not interested in people: no jobs for people desperately looking for a decent livelihood, no mercy on communities that are in the way of further expansion of extraction. It’s a clear imperative that we have to join hands in solidarity to overcome this cruel and insane system of extractivism! Herbert Wasserbauer, DKA Austria

This photo story was written by Trusha Reddy, WoMin
Photos courtesy of
DKA Austria