Fate of controversial Somkhele coal mine lies with Mantashe as court opts for “pragmatism”

SA mines minister, Gwede Mantashe. Photo: Getty Images

SOUTH Africa’s mines minister Gwede Mantashe has been asked to help decide whether the controverisal expansion of the Somkhele anthracite mine in KwaZulu-Natal will proceed.

The Pretoria High Court said last week that the expansion – which is the subject of fierce opposition among environmentalists – ought to be sent “for reconsideration” by the mines minister, according to a statement by the mine’s backer, Petmin.

The Court was considering an application by the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization (MCEJO) to set aside the mining right and environmental management programme (EMPr) which is held by Petmin subsidiary, Tendele Coal.

The mining right and EMPr remains in force until a view is offered by Mantashe, although interestingly the Court’s Judge, Noluntu Bam said in her ruling: “I have reflected on the parties’ cases including the reasons placed by the applicants … this is a case that calls for pragmatism to guide the court”.

Joblessness in South Africa is at crisis levels, rising to 35.3% in the fourth quarter of 2021. Of this number, nearly two-thirds of those aged between 15 and 24 are unemployed while 42.9% of 25 to 34 year-olds don’t have a job.

“The Somkhele Mine has been in operation for more than 15 years, and when the mine is in full operation, employs more than 1200 people,” said Petmin. Of these employees, 87% are from the impoverished Mpukunyoni community.

However, there appear to be deficiencies in the process following by Tendele Coal in applying for the mining right and EMPr, according to a report by GroundUp, a news agency specialising in human rights reportage.

It cited the Judge as saying in respect of whether Tendele had supplied sufficient information in a scoping study for the EMPr: “Tendele provided nothing of the sort.

“It was a fundamental breach of the law with regard to public participation. And it had already unduly limited the public participation through its defective notices (about the size of the mining area).”

“The attitude displayed by Tendele during the scoping phase is offensive.”

Judge Bam said: “This is a case that calls for pragmatism. It seems to me that an order referring the matter back to the minister will strike the correct balance of various competing interests.”

She directed that the minister reconsider the matter on appeal “in accordance with the findings of this judgment”.

The expansion of Somkhele is deeply divisive. On October 22, Fikile Ntshangase, an environmental activist who opposed Tendele Coal’s plans to expand Somkhele was murdered in her home.

They key environmental issue turns on sections of the proposed mine expansion the nearest pit of which is just 500 metres from the iMfolozi river, itself 4.7 kilometres from the confluence of the White iMfolozi and Black iMfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal.