South Africa: Pembani Coal — Misdirected Benefit?

  • Mining company is destroying productive farmland
  • Security of tenure of farm workers in jeopardy
  • Village houses fell over due to blasting, mining company selectively compensating for damages
  • Unemployment is rife since mining replaced commercial farming
  • Traditional grazing land allocated to farm workers revoked for mining
  • Village borehole fallen in due to mine blasting, villagers now reliant on insufficient water supply from municipal trucks.
  • Mining company denies any wrong doing, insisting that they are making a positive contribution.

by Franz Fuls

About 115 kilometers South-East of Witbank lies the sleepy town of Carolina. The villagers of Ebuhleni, just outside the town (previously known as MaFour), are farmworkers. They have always been. That was until Pembani Coal realised that there are profitable coal seams to be exploited under the farm where the village is located. The villagers have worked on this farm for many decades and according to the locals they were also allowed to graze their own cattle on the farm for the past forty years. But that’s all over now.

“Before the mine there was a lot of space here, there was a large pasture. When the mine came they divided that pasture in half. One side they dug for coal. The people are suffering a lot, and they don’t care how the people make a living. They just do whatever they like,” said Lesley Nkosi, a retrenched dairy foreman.

Pembani Coal’s operation outside Carolina started in 2004. At the current mining rate of 1.5 million metric tonnes per annum, they expect a life of mine of twelve years. They claim that they consulted with interested and affected parties. They acknowledge that people living within a 500 metre radius of their operation are immediately affected and must have preference.

But since opencast coal mining started on this farm, the lives of the villagers have gradually deteriorated. The mine replaced the previous agricultural business that employed them and today unemployment is rife. A villager explained that only one person in the village is full time employed, but by another coal mine East of Pembani’s operation. Yet the company claims to employ local residents first, stating that two individuals from Ebuhleni are employed by them. The villagers deny that this is the case.

Opencast coal mining operations in the Mpumalanga Highveld are destroying the livelihood of farmworkers, leaving them destitute in an unfamiliar environment where they become unemployable due to their specialised agricultural skill sets. Mining companies’ lack of obtaining consent in community engagement is leading to destitution and frustration in the communities closest to them.

Once upon a time

Lesley Nkosi used to be a dairy foreman on the farm and is now one of the unemployed. According to him, blasting damaged the brick houses that the villagers lived in. The houses deteriorated to a point where they became structurally unsafe. At that point Pembani Coal (who caused the damage in the first place) intervened by building them new houses. These houses were built on the exact same place as the old settlement, with active mining operations in close proximity. But the new houses are starting to show signs of damage from blasting. At least the villagers have one improvement: they now have electricity. It is unclear whether they can afford the luxury of electricity in their current economic crisis.

Bheki Khumalo, director of Pembani Coal explains: “The company’s policy regarding communities is embedded in the Safety, Health, Environment and Community policy... The houses that Pembani Coal built are of an improved quality... We don’t foresee any damage from our future blasting, however, we do blasting monitoring for every blast to ensure that they are not affected.”

Lesley says the villagers cannot graze their cattle anymore, since Pembani requires them to contain all their assets within their yards. Pembani denies this.

The pasture that used to sustain their cattle is now partly a huge hole. The windmill that ensured a good clean water supply has caved in, allegedly because of Pembani’s blasting activities.

Lack of water for cattle is one thing, but the broken windmill means that nobody has water. The municipality of nearby Carolina town tries to supply them with drinking water on a weekly basis, but they cannot keep up. The villagers experience frequent water shortages. Pembani claims that the windmill was already broken on their arrival, and that they stopped repairing it after failed attempts. According to them the water yield of this windmill is not enough to sustain the community anyhow. They continue to explain that they intend sinking a hand operated borehole in future, but until then the villagers are reliant on municipal water trucks.

In a furore of desperation, Lesley complains that new houses are now being built. Nobody in the village has been informed. Construction workers just arrived with their machines and started working. The rumour is that Pembani is relocating farm workers from other farms where they want to mine. Lesley comments: “So I went and asked them: why are you bringing more people here, where must the cattle graze? They said someone that stays here shall keep his cattle inside his yard.”

Pembani Coal’s Bekhi Khumalo disagrees, stating that villagers are still grazing cattle on the property. He explains that farm workers residing on other parts of the farm are being relocated to Ebuhleni.

“The people of Ebuhleni are always given a first preference in the employment process at Pembani Coal Processing Plant because it is permanently based in their vicinity.” Yet Pembani appoints external contractors to run their operations, who are not bound by this commitment. As Mr. Khumalo explains that the contractor operates on more than one farm currently being mined by Pembani this cannot be enforced.

And since the village is on land leased by the mine from a land owner, Pembani has limited control over permissible activities.

It happened here

The villagers of Ebuhleni are not the only people affected by the Pembani operation.A small subsistence farming collective also borders Pembani’s colliery. According to a resident they were allocated land by government as part of South Africa’s land reform projects. Mama Deliwe is one of these beneficiaries. Sitting on a bench outside her traditional clay house she raises her concerns: “the mine never consulted us, they just came in and started mining... It’s a problem because when they blast while you are inside [the house], the roof and the crockery are shaking. We are in danger because when they blast the house can fall on us: the cupboards can fall over the children while they sleep!”

Mama Deliwe’s house is in close proximity to Pembani’s mine dumps, and mining trucks offloading material on the dump are clearly visible. The dumps are bordering the property of these emerging farmers, and it seems that their dreams and aspirations of economic independence are all but destroyed. We received news that Mama Deliwe has been relocated to Ebuhleni village in the past few weeks. She will now have electricity, but may share Lesley’s concerns on farming opportunities.

Dan Maseko, 50, was born on the farm mined by Pembani faces an uncertain future. He also live close to Pembani’s colliery, who has previously caused some damage to his house from blasting.

On the evening of 18 December he woke up to the sound of his wall falling in.

According to Maseko, Pembani performed blasting operations at night while the Maseko family were asleep in their house and did not evacuate the family before blasting.

A wall inside Maseko’s traditional clay house fell down, destroying his couch and some household furniture to an estimated the value of R10,000 — a small fortune for him. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but the family is in distress.

Maseko reported the damage to Pembani on the following day. A delegate was instructed to inspect the alleged damages, but since the delegate was busy relocating other people, Maseko was asked to wait until the other relocations were complete before Pembani could assess the damage to his house.

Khumalo explains that Maseko “... kept on requesting the mine to relocate him to the Ebuhleni families but the mine insisted on its policy and international standards.”

Responding on a previous complaint from Maseko, Pembani performed an inspection, prior to the wall falling in. Khumalo says “it was hard to believe that any cracks were caused by Pembani blasting.” because his house is 1.8 kilometers away from the blasting site. Pembani does however claim that they evacuate the Maseko family every time they blast and that the mining operation may not be the cause of the wall falling, but rather by lack of maintenance and high rainfall.

“It is unfortunate that the mine cannot afford to build new houses for all people especially if they are not within the affected area. It would be unfair to put blame on Pembani Coal for any damage on the houses that are outside of the affected radius of 500 metres from the operations.”

In the meantime the Maseko family will have to move in with neighbours or risk living in a structurally unsafe house over the festive season while mining companies in South Africa close down for the holidays.

That’s what they said

In the statement Mr. Khumalo elaborates on the community benefits:

“We are always conscious about the security of tenure for the affected families and we avoid relocating them from the original farm where they have security of tenure.”

Through a staggering amount of programmes, Pembani claim that the people of Carolina have benefitted just under R20 million of investment, into agriculture initiatives, bursaries, training, construction, socIal welfare and other initiatives.

It is clear that Pembani coal is investing into the local economy, but many of the initiatives seem to be aimed at the greater Carolina area, while the immediate people who were previously employed in sustainable agriculture became unemployed as a direct result of the mine.

In conclusion the statement from Mr. Khumalu explains: “It is however extremely difficult and almost impossible to satisfy all quarters of the community around our operation. Ebuhleni community is one of the communities that have benefited from Pembani Coal’s operation however there are some individuals within the community that believe that they are more entitled to benefit from the company.”

Only a third of coal produced by Pembani Coal is applied to alleviate South Africa’s energy crisis. The balance is sold to international traders.