The mine was to be developed in the Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom by Atha-Africa Ventures Ltd.
It is the South African subsidiary of the Atha Group, which is registered in India. Its BEE partner is the Bashubile Trust, of which the trustees include Vincent and Sizwe Zuma, nephews of former president Jacob Zuma.
The case was brought by the coalition of eight civil society organisations, including Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, Earthlife Africa, Johannesburg and Birdlife South Africa.
They are challenging a range of authorisations that have permitted the underground coal mine in a strategic water source area and a protected area.
The Mabola Protected Environment was declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014 in the Mpumalanga provincial government as part of the declaration of more than 70000 hectares of protected areas in the Mpumalanga grasslands.
In 2016, without public consultation and without notice to the coalition, the two ministers gave their permission for a large, 15-year coal mine to be built inside the Mabola Protected Environment.
The proposed mine is an underground coal mine named the Yzerfontein underground coal mine. The proposal is to use a conventional “bord-and-pillar” mining method, comprising the removal of large areas of coal-containing ore and to erect underground pillars of ore to support the “roof” of the underground mine.
Apart from the surface infrastructure, the largest part of its underground mining footprint falls within the Mabola protected environment, comprising wetlands.
The court set aside the permission given for the mining activities and referred the decision back for reconsideration. This was on the basis that the ministers did not take their decisions in an open and transparent manner or in a manner that promoted public participation.
Judge Norman Davis said: “It needs to be mentioned that there is a disturbing feature in the conduct of the ministers or their departments, which gave rise to one of the complaints of a lack of transparency. This is that the primary beneficiaries of the mining activity sought to be permitted are based off-shore and their local BEE component is, to an extent, ‘politically connected’.”
The judge said there was a compelling need for environmental decision-making to take place openly.
“As the advocates who appeared for the applicants put it, ‘ethical environmental governance and behaviour is enhanced simply by exposing it to the glare of public scrutiny’.”
The permission for this mine, given by Molewa and Zwane, was the first in South Africa for a new mine to be permitted in a protected environment.