Cape Town - For five years they fought to protect South Africa’s “lost city of gold” from the ravages of coal mining. And even now the battle to save Mapungubwe is not over.
Some say it was never won, writes Yolan Friedmann, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), in a new book that charts the birth of the groundbreaking environmental coalition that would draw swords with an Australian mining outfit, Coal of Africa (CoAL) over its opencast coal mine 7km to the northeast of the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site in Limpopo.
For Friedmann, the coalition was a “formidable force who were not willing to stand idle while short-term gain and elitist interests prevailed over the rights of thousands to a heritage and an environment that offered a much richer experience to future generations than a dried-out river bed or dusty coal mine”.
Over 800 years ago, the Kingdom of Mapungubuwe was a proud and powerful pre-colonial state, predating Great Zimbabwe, where a sophisticated early civilisation traded in gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.
But when the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) granted CoAL a mining right for its Vele colliery project in 2010, the signal was clear, says the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals): Mapungubwe was open for business. Next month, Cals, a human rights organisation based at Wits University, will launch The Mapungubwe Story: A Campaign For Change, a book that charts the Save Mapungubwe Coalition it represented together with the Centre for Environmental Rights.
Through it, groups such as the Southern African Professional Archaeologists, EWT, Birdlife SA, Wilderness Foundation SA, WWF-SA and the Peace Parks Foundation were brought together by a sense of outrage and “a shared need to draw a line in the sand on the devastating impacts of poorly regulated mining in South Africa”, writes Melissa Fourie of the Centre for Environmental Rights.
“During the years to follow, the coalition waged possibly the most co-ordinated and well-supported civil society battle against a mining company since the battle to save Lake St Lucia in the early 1990s.”
In their protracted legal campaign, the coalition argued that CoAL’s opencast coal mine would destroy Mapungubwe’s unique and sensitive landscape – and herald the industrialisation of the Limpopo River Valley.
“This development pitted the imperatives of heritage, biodiversity and water conservation against those of extracting SA’s mineral resources,” notes Cals.
At first, the coalition aimed to stop the development of the colliery – allowing opencast coal mining alongside a World Heritage Site would set a dangerous precedent. “But by October 2011, both the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) – formerly publicly opposed to the development – granted licences to coal for the colliery, signalling that regulators were now behind the project,” notes Cals.
The coalition signed a memorandum of understanding with CoAL, but withdrew in September 2012. The coalition later got full participation in the environmental management committee.
While the coalition notched up victories, Fourie remains unforgiving about the “complete neglect” of the DMR and the DWA of their regulatory mandate and duties that allowed the “shame of the dysfunctional colliery to exist today” and the “capitulation” of the DEA.
But the DMR has to take the blame as the main cause for the damage at Vele, she says, by granting the mining right so contemptuously despite the impassioned pleas of the DEA. She also cites its “astonishing absence” from the site since its decision to grant the right.
Then, there was the “regrettable” and “erratic” response of the DEA, which “was in many ways the death knell to the coalition’s struggle”.
She writes: “Ultimately, one part of the DEA fought a brave and costly battle, only to hand over the spoils to another part of the department more concerned with making conservation appear business friendly, no matter how inappropriate.”
The book notes CoAL’s questionable compliance record and “pattern of poor planning and short-termism”, which has harmed its profitability.
Louis Snyman, an attorney in Cals’ environmental justice programme, remarks: “We’re in the compliance monitoring phase now and that requires a lot of trust that the parties initially didn’t have.
“We’ve built that trust along the way. Mapungubwe now has a new buffer zone, a biodiversity offset agreement, and an environmental management programme framework. There are going to be parts of the park that are extended … These are victories.”
But if opencast mining can be allowed near the site of one of the most important kingdoms of the African continent, “then the integrity of no place should be taken for granted.
“Despite its status as a World Heritage Site and protected area, and the presence of a complex and extensive set of legislative safeguards, an opencast mine was allowed to develop so close to the site… If Mapungubwe is testament to systemic governance problems, other heritage sites could be at risk.”
Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu, of the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists, agrees. “While Mapungubwe provides significant insight into southern Africa’s early civilisation, its inscription to the list has not shielded it from negative threats.”
Friedmann notes that “many more Veles have arisen” and “unique and special places” are constantly under threat from similar mining ambitions. But, she believes, current and future generations cannot be held hostage to the empty promises of jobs and “billions of rand investment” by mining firms who have no regard for the losses or impacts on those most affected.
Fourie says important work is still required at the Vele colliery. “At this stage, it’s not certain if this will ever happen without the coalition’s insistence. This includes rectification of the failure to deliver on the (biodiversity) offset requirements in the DEA’s authorisation to CoAL… “Moreover, given the lengthy period of care and maintenance that Vele Colliery has been in, inconvenient questions will now have to be asked about rehabilitation and financial provision for such rehabilitation in the area.”
CoAL says it is now “engaged in securing regulatory authorisations as we continue to develop the (Vele) operation.
“Adequate financial provision for rehabilitation has been provided to regulatory auhtories.”
l The Story of Mapungubwe: A Campaign For Change will be launched at the School of Law at Wits University on June 24.