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SarWatch Writer
Press Release: Increasing Mining Activities in South Africa Must Not Happen at the Expense of Mining Communities’ Rights to Live in a Clean Environment

During the State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week, President Ramaphosa informed South African citizens of government’s intention to increase the mining of critical minerals which are needed in the green energy transition, such as vanadium, platinum, palladium, nickel, manganese, rare earths, copper, and cobalt. The Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, confirmed the president’s position expressed during the SONA debate. The plan is to attract investors to expand exploration and prospection for the critical minerals which SA is known to have in abundance. South Africa is a well-established mining economy. As President Ramaphosa correctly put it “mining is one of the mature industries with a lot to offer in revamping the country’s industrial and manufacturing potential.” The South African government is looking to capitalise on the demand for these minerals.

The Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) is concerned about the expansion of mining when the state is unable to protect citizens and the environment from the negative impact of mining activities. The economic imperatives characterised by poverty, high unemployment, inequality and exclusion, might dictate the government’s decision; however, the question is, is the government capable of drawing maximum benefits from these minerals and protecting people’s rights and the environment at the same time? Past and present experiences raise serious doubts about the state’s capacity to protect people and the environment.

South Africa has a long history of mining and has produced the highest amount of minerals ever extracted on the African continent, which has left behind irreparable environmental damage characterised by pollution, abandoned mines and tailing dams. Government plans to expand mining come in the context of serious environmental damage. Examples abound that expose the state’s inability to protect ordinary citizens from the harsh effects of mining. The decades-old acid mine drainage continues to seep into water resources, affecting humans, the environment, and other living species years after the mines were closed. This acid drainage is said to have polluted many water sources, including the Wemmer Pan lake in Johannesburg, the Roodeplaat Dam in Tshwane, and the Umvalo and Black Mfolozi Rivers. A 2021 study by the University of Witwatersrand revealed the Klip River wetland to be an important sink for pollutants originating from mining activities on the Witwatersrand gold mines. This wetland is a valuable natural resource and an important water purifier for Gauteng province. The recent rainy weather has seen an unprecedented inflow of toxic mine waste into some of the country’s rivers, adding to the existing water pollution. Last month the bodies of two brothers were discovered in a sinkhole at an old mining site in Reiger Park, which raises the issue of mining closure and tailings dam management.
There is increasing risk of acid mine drainage from coal mining affecting the Carolina community in Mpumalanga, where residents are afraid to drink the water due to their main drinking water source turning dark green and fish dying according to SciDev.net. This is one more example of how the negative impacts of mining are left unchecked. There are also longstanding concerns about mining toxins affecting the West and East Rand communities in Gauteng. Environmental damage due to mining and the effect on people’s health has yet to be costed in monetary terms.

SARW recognises the government’s responsibility to use the country’s mineral wealth for economic development, and there is no doubt that the green energy transition provides a great opportunity for the reindustrialisation of the country which will come with immense benefits such as expansion of the manufacturing capacity, job creation, skill and infrastructure development, and technological advancement. We are concerned, however, about the state’s proven lack of capacity to manage the mining sector. The South African government has repeatedly failed to monitor mining companies’ environmental, social and rights compliance with the legislative and policy requirements.

The president’s assurance that new mines will comply with the country’s environmental and other laws is not convincing. The government is known to prioritise revenue generation for the benefit of a few, at the expense of mining communities who bear the brunt of the negative impacts of mining. The current mineral governance approach does not prioritise people and nature; it puts profits before communities’ rights and does nothing to resolve the gross inequalities that the country is experiencing. Mining companies regularly ignore the country’s laws and policies because of state incapacity or state collusion. There is no indication that the government is investing in state capacity to manage adequately the demands of the new mining projects.

SARW’s request to the government is that it invests in state capacity to monitor, identify and sanction mining companies that pollute and abuse communities’ rights. Government must also recognise that it will need communities themselves to participate, and for that reason government must strengthen communities’ voices to advocate for a clean environment and protect their rights against the expanding mining activities.

Contact for Enquiries:
Masutane Modjadji
SARW Communications Officer
Cellphone: +27833078355
Email: masutanem@sarwatch.org

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