Regular blasting had cracked his house and was endangering the lives of his children and grandchildren. Life on the Mooifontein farm where he had worked all his life and raised his family had become unbearable. Along with nearly 70 others, Mabena reluctantly agreed to be relocated by Optimum to a two-bedroom RDP house in Rockdale, a township at least 30km away.
But today, without a title deed for the property and with more than 30 of his cattle dead from starvation, leaving his rural home is a decision he still regrets. “The Optimum coal mine made me poor,” says Mabena bitterly, as he sits in his small home.
“I feel like a gun was pointed at me to move; like I was chased away like an animal. What makes my heart sore is just look at how badly this house was built. The kitchen is right next to the toilet. There’s not even a door. If they had showed me this before, I would never have come here.”
Now that the embattled coal mine, which is owned by the controversial Gupta family, has been placed under business rescue again, the 63-year-old has another worry: possibly losing this house too.
“If now we say that the mine is in business rescue, and maybe they start liquidating, if there’s no title deeds for these houses, they can auction them off as an asset,” says a relative of Mabena, who does not want to be named because he works in the local mining industry. “We can all end up with having no place to stay.”
Down the road, Mabena’s 84-year-old wheelchair-bound aunt, Selaphi Mthethwa, sits huddled in blankets on a reed mat, peering with cataract-laden eyes at her small yard. Her daughters and granddaughter gather near her on the floor. Without a title deed, they worry what will happen to them when she dies.
Mthethwa remembers how the mine came closer to her home, and how the blasting eventually shook her family off the land too. “You know what I miss? I miss the forest and my animals.”
A small group of families in Mooifontein who had refused to leave their farm homes have now reached a “satisfactory” confidential settlement with Optimum through their lawyers, Richard Spoor Attorneys. Their attorney, George Kahn, believes it’s unlikely that the Rockdale relocated families could ever be evicted.
“That they can get their title deeds can still easily happen. Even if we imagine the worst-case scenario and the mine liquidates, a trustee, appointed by the Master of the Court, would be aware that the houses are currently occupied.
“I suspect the families will get their title deeds but whether it will happen next week or in the next six months is a different story"
The firm did not respond this week but previously noted how “domestic legislation and international regulations have been followed during the negotiations to date, namely the Extension of Security of Tenure Act and the World Bank International Finance Corporation (IFC) Guidance Note 5 on Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement.
“Eighty-seven percent of households involved in the original consultation process accepted resettlement terms in August and September 2014, which exceeded World Bank guidelines, and have completed their relocation.”
But Mabena’s relative argues that the houses in Rockdale don’t meet the IFC guidelines and are ridden with defects. “The biggest issue is the lack of title deeds and the poor construction of our houses.
“We are surrounded by death; our parents, who worked on the farm, are all old now and will die soon. What if the mine in the future says this is our area now. Where will all these people go?
“I feel the government is not doing anything to ensure that those who are being relocated by the mines, that it is done in the right manner, not just to benefit a certain group close to the president or politicians. People in rural areas are not literate.
“Right now, it’s Optimum’s employees that are being affected but before them, it was us, the rural community but we have no power to bring attention to this.”
Other Rockdale residents accuse the mine of failing to employ their youngest family members, as was originally promised, though they acknowledge skills development initiatives such as driver's licence training has been done.
“I’m the youngest in my house,” says the unemployed Piet Mtsweni, who lives on the other side of Rockdale.
“But I was never given a job. I had a job on the farm where we were relocated from, but I don’t have transport money.”
His family survives on the meagre pension of his father, a former farmworker on Mooifontein, who was also relocated.
“We’re worried if he dies, that we will be evicted because there is no title deed. It’s troubling us, this mess of Optimum.”
His frail, elderly father, Johannes, shows how a part of his home’s roof was torn off by the wind.
“I contacted the mine to help me fix it but I never got an answer. I’m worried the roof will fall on the kids. I don’t have any money. I had to sell my six cattle.
"I was compensated by the mine but it wasn’t enough,” he shrugs.
Though Mabena, too, was compensated for his cattle, it wasn’t enough. “I lost R250 000. That’s how much they were worth. Now, I have to put my son through college or university. I could have sold four cattle to help me do that.
“On the farm, when I woke up, I had firewood, a water pump, I could milk the cows for breakfast for the kids. Now, here in this urban area, when I wake up, it’s R30 for milk and bread. I have to work for a few pennies. There’s no space here to grow my own morogo.”