As activists prepare to hand over 50 000 petitions to government Nontsokolo Mhlotshana reflects on challenges affecting people living in mining areas

Let me give you a brief picture into my personal experience, as someone who lived in a mining affected community few years ago. I lived in Welkom in the Free State.

What a terrible experience that was. I could not stand the constant vile smell that hung in the air of the town every day.

It was a smell I had never experienced in my life. But I had to endure it because I need the job I was doing there.

I later learnt that the smell is caused by sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide in the air comes mainly from activities such as the burning of coal and oil at power plants or from copper smelting.

In nature, sulphur dioxide can be released to the air from volcanic eruptions. This explained the terrible smell and the brownish water people had to drink.

I refer to people because I was privileged enough to afford to buy my own water for consumption purposes. But I wondered what happens to those who have no choice but to drink the water. The mining industry has proven itself to be a sector that will do anything to get the gold, regardless of how many people must die. One would assume after the horror of Marikana, the sector will be more considerate.

This certainly goes against the speech made by the late former president Nelson Mandela in 1998 at a May Day Rally in Kimberley.

He said that if by working together we had been able to establish new government structures and develop new policies that put people first, then we should face the challenges of the future with confidence.

But after 26 years of democracy, the people of South Africa are still experiencing the suffering of their ancestors.

In May of 2020 the Mining Affected Communities United in Action and Women Affected Mining United in Action launched a nationwide campaign to collect 100 000 signatures from mining affected communities.

They were calling on the president, the minister of mineral resources and energy, and the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on mineral resources and energy to immediately take steps to ensure that the voice of mining affected communities is centred in mining-related legislation.

The entrance to the Brakfontein shaft of the Bokoni platinum used to be a hive of activity with hawkers and taxis and people but is now deserted. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

The organisations are calling for communities to be consulted in the processes of allocating mining licenses, development programmes and in the distribution of mining rents and wealth.

These are after all communities who bear the brunt of the social, economic and environmental degradation impacts of mining.   Mme Nkali, the provincial representative of WAMUA Welkom, Free State, said to me, in a conversation I had with her “the diamond chemical affects people’s lives, and communities are not aware of this, but they continue to experience illnesses such as TB, Cancer and fatal childbirth and other related illnesses”. It will be naïve to say the government of South Africa, the Department of Health and Department of Mineral and Resource are not aware of this?

This made me fear, that after so many years of fighting for our freedom, we stand at time where our government is not putting its people first. It is 2020 and the confidence is nowhere to be found, miners are still subjected to undignified lifestyle, where clean water is not accessible.

What is more painful is the fact that these major mines, are not even owned by South Africans or the government, yet the population which suffers from its long-term consequence are South African citizens, who are not economically benefitting from it. While European companies continue to make billions from the mining industry. Securing their clean and safe environment and empowering their economic growth to retain their position as global countries.

It is rather sad and concerning, that communities that welcomes mining in their land for development of our country are subjected to such inhumane. Many children are without fathers and often both parents, and when they are alive, they spent most of their time working in these mines, not having quality time with their families yet most die poor. Living their families and children to fend for themselves.

Imagine having a man who dedicated all his life, risking his health and that of his family, to make a living, only to die and have nothing to show for it. This is exactly the situation with mining communities.

In February of 2017 in the North Gauteng High Court, where Macua and Wamua and others were recognised by the courts as relevant and affected stakeholders for purposes of consultations during the development of Mining Charter.

And the Baleni ruling of the North Gauteng High Court commonly referred to as the Xolobeni ruling in November 2018, affirmed that communities must provide their consent before mining takes place on their land. 

And more recently in September 2020 the North Gauteng High Court again affirmed that the country’s constitutional values require that communities be “part of the negotiating process from the start” when mining companies want to mine on community land. 

Yet there still need to march and petition, to restore the dignity of black affected communities.

What will it take for government to put its people first? Is it not enough that black people have suffered the trauma of apartheid system, that they continue to now suffer the pain of democracy?

If slavery was so bad, why is it that we still have mining companies that use black people for their own profit making without care of their wellbeing? This is rather baffling, growing up, I learnt the pain of my friends, who never had their fathers around, because they went to the mines. And the unfortunate part, is that not a lot has changed from our past. If the government can be so quiet about this human rights issue, it is a call for concern.

It is therefore necessary that organisations such as Macua and Wamua continue their advocacy for communities for better development of our people.

* Nontsokolo Mhlotshana is creative director and cultural practitioner, currently doing her master’s degree at university of Witwatersrand.