Atha-Africa, CER boxing match a demonstration of Mantashe’s energy “polemic”

CER director, Melissa Fourie

FOR a demonstration of the “polemic” South African mines minister, Gwede Mantashe, said existed in the country’s energy debate, look no further than the pugilism between the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and Atha-Africa Ventures (AAV).

Occupying the green corner, CER represents groupings of non-governmental organisations interested in stopping further coal mining developments in the interests of community health and the environment.

With backs firmly lodged in the opposing corner is AAV, a company that hails from India and – many years ago – was invited to invest in South Africa has part of a BRICS initiative. It wants to build the Yzermyn coal mine which is located in the Mabola protected area in Mpumalanga province where the Vaal and Pongola rivers have confluence. AAV’s MD, Praveer Tripathi, makes the business argument that coal mines bring jobs, regional wealth and also helps ease the plight of South Africa’s energy security crisis.

So far, so plain. Unfortunately, the clarity ends there. The legal fight between the two sides is as complicated as it is acrimonious.

First, the legals.

Tripathi maintains there is no impediment stopping AAV from building Yzermyn, which is scoped to produce 2.5 million tons a year (Mt/y) of thermal coal. He claims the company has spent the past two years since announcing the development of the mine swerving a series of legal roadblocks thrown in his way by CER.

All of them have been negotiated. Not so retorts the CER’s Melissa Fourie. “We may be activists, but we are also lawyers,” she said in a telephonic conversation with Miningmx. Her point is that AAV has a mountain of legal paperwork to address including the very substantial matter of a Supreme Court of Appeal rejection of Yzermyn’s mining right.

Tripathi confirms AAV has applied to the president of the Supreme Court to reverse a setting aside order for the mining right which had previously been blocked by the High Court. But he adds that CER’s claim this is a fatal blow to Yzermyn is false.

“The decision is under appeal in SCA and therefore the operating part of the decision stands suspended until SCA decides one way or the other. However, the first five years of mining is outside the Protected Environment.

“A permission under s48 NEMPAA [National Environment Management Protected Area Act] would only be needed when the underground mining ventures into those farms,” he said. “Currently, as it stands, the construction area and the initial five years of life of mine are outside the Mabola Protected Environment.”

So the question going to court is whether the mine can be an underground mine, or remain a limited, five-year open pit mine.

Secondly, there’s the acrimony that makes Mantashe’s comments about the wide span of conviction that separate fossil fuellers from the greens so apposite.

According to Tripathi, the CER “… excels in the distortion of truth [its] … entire business model is based on scare-mongering and public relations”.

The CER views all coal mining as anathema. It also totally rejects the notion that clean coal technology can be a means through which the development of cheap fossil fuels can be managed whilst the transition to renewable power is underway.

“There is a great deal of litigation still pending,” said Catherine Horsfield, a spokeswoman of CER regarding Yzermyn. “Fresh approvals are required for which there must be public participation. It is not the case that Atha is now in a position to commence mining lawfully,” she added.