Long Read | Limpopo mines destroy communities

Residents in villages situated near mining activities are exposed to dangerous hazards that claim their health, damage their homes and threaten their livelihoods.

“When the siren from the mine says wee-wee-wee-wee, I take my children to stay outside for safety,” says Charlotte Ngwato, a mother of two who lives in Maatlopeng village, about 35km from Burgersfort in Limpopo. Like the other residents of this small village, she laments the damage their houses suffer because of the nearby opencast Lwala Mine, which is owned by Samancor Chrome. The villagers say the mine began operating in June 2018.

“They were blasting right next to our houses,” Ngwato says. “We saw a convoy of cars that came to fetch us to live in tents closer to the graveyard in the village. We asked why they are taking us to the tents, and they said they wanted to blast here and the chemicals that they use are poisonous. That is where the problems started. We told them that since you’ve done everything without consulting us, do as you please.”

Ngwato says the whole area gets covered by a thick layer of dust. “They’ve never listened to us and they’ve continued with their operation. You must check first when they’re knocking off early, and that’s the only time you’d be able to open windows and wash your laundry,” she explains.

It recently rained in the area and Ngwato says her neighbour, Lucy Thobejane, called the mine to come and see the black water that was collected from her roof. “We told them that our houses are getting destroyed. My house had broken windows because of the mine’s operation,” says Ngwato. 

6 October 2020: Whiskey Manyaka’s house is within 500m of Lwala Mine in Maatlopeng village, Limpopo. It developed cracks while under construction in December 2019, which he says were caused by blasting at the mine.

Houses cracking

Whiskey Manyaka and Patricia Thobejane live about 470m from the mine. In December 2019, cracks developed in the walls of the house they were building. Manyaka says it took him decades of doing piece jobs to save enough to provide a decent home for his family. Then early this year, as they were about to erect a roof over their new home with its four bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen and dining and sitting room, the house collapsed. Standing next to the rubble, Manyaka says: “What can I do? I have no words.”

The home of Manyaka’s neighbour, his sister-in-law Esther Thobejane, also has cracks. “But these people are selfish,” says Ngwato. “We call them to see the cracks, they come – and tomorrow they’d be blasting again. All of us have cracks in our houses.” 

6 October 2020: One of the houses in Modimolle village that was damaged by blasting when Twickenham Platinum Mine’s Hackney shaft was still operating. Cracks in homes and other buildings are common in the village.

The residents of Maatlopeng say they want Samancor Chrome to relocate them and provide compensation for the damage to their properties. But the company has made several different propositions. “They said they wanted to fix our gravel road with mine waste and give us water,” explains Ngwato. “We rejected this proposal. They came with another proposal that they are willing to patch damages and also bring specialists to educate us how to build in future. We asked them, because some of the cracks are in the foundation, how will you patch the foundation?”

A third proposal, which infuriated the residents even more, is for Lwala Mine to give each affected household R900 a month that will be topped up with R300 every time blasting operations take place. “This amount can’t even assist to rebuild or fix severe cracks in the house,” Ngwato explains, adding that the mine allegedly tried to convince those residents who live in shacks or are yet to build homes to accept the proposal.

Bokoni Platinum Mine

Such challenges are widespread in communities affected by mining. Moshabi Selowa is a human rights and environmental activist from Malengine Section in Monametsi village, which is situated between two of Bokoni Platinum Mine’s underground shafts in the Platinum Belt in Limpopo. Bokoni is a joint venture between minority shareholder Anglo American Platinum and majority shareholder Atlatsa Resources and has been under care and maintenance since 2017.

Selowa says when the mine’s Brakfontein shaft was established in 2005, houses in Monametsi were damaged during the hauling of construction materials from Bokoni’s UM2 shaft. Residents managed to compel the mine to relocate 45 households and build houses for them.

“In 2014, when we moved into those houses, we found that the houses were already cracked,” he says. Through a lawyer, they managed to force the mine to rebuild the cracked houses, with 25 having been completed and the rest repaired. “What causes the cracks? It is the cheap materials [they use] and another thing is that they used mine waste material which is not suitable for compaction,” Selowa explains.

“These mines know that they’re destroying community property, but they need to be pushed by lawyers [before doing anything],” says community activist Katlego Malesa, who lives in nearby Ga-Makgopa village. 

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“Definitely!” agrees Selowa, adding that in documents in his possession the mine admitted that it was aware that the “mine waste is not suitable for compaction”. 

But Jana Marais, head of communications at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), disputes this. “Geotechnical experts and structural engineers appointed by Bokoni found that the cause of damage to the 45 houses built at Monametsi village were attributable to the expansive clay conditions in the area, as well as a lack of stormwater drainage infrastructure… All rebuilding and repair work at Monametsi was done to the highest professional standards, using only [South African Bureau of Standards] and [South African National Standard] approved materials, and in compliance with National Building Regulations and Standards [Act] specifications.”

She adds: “It should be noted that in mining terms, waste rock refers to rock that does not contain minerals – it is not a reflection on the quality of the rock or the suitability for building purposes. Rocks from the mine were used in the new foundations as specified by the geotechnical studies and the structural engineers used on the project.”

5 October 2020: A view of Twickenham Platinum Mine’s Hackney shaft, which has been under care and maintenance since July 2016.

Dangerous hazards

About 40km from Burgersfort lies Twickenham Platinum Mine’s Hackney shaft. The mine, which is 100% owned by Amplats, was placed under care and maintenance in July 2016 when the platinum group metals’ low prices made operations unprofitable.

Sylvia Mokwena lives in Modimolle village, which is not to be confused with the town. In July 2013, two of her children, Ingrit, 26, and Mabuwela, 17, along with another child, were injured. It was a cold day and the children had gone to fetch water from one of the village taps.One of the children picked up an explosive fuse and lit it. It exploded on them,” explains community activist Aubrey Winfried Thobejane. He says explosives from the shaft were strewn all over the gravel road that leads to Modimolle.

“Sometimes when I wake up my eye becomes sore and gets swollen,” says Ingrit, whose parents have carried the burden of her medical costs alone.

6 October 2020: Sylvia Mokwena’s children were injured in an explosion in 2013. A community activist in Modimolle village says explosives from mining operations at Hackney shaft could be found lying around at the time.

Marais says the injured were taken to a hospital in Mecklenburg by the mine’s ambulance. The police investigated the matter, but the National Prosecuting Authority “declined to prosecute the case due to a lack of evidence”, she says.

“Where risks do present themselves, we have very strict protocols in place. Explosives are one such example. Explosives are highly regulated in a mining environment and are subject to regular audits and inspections by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. Anglo American Platinum also has extensive control measures in place around explosives, from delivery to the usage of explosives, and the destruction of explosive material. We do daily stock reconciliations as well as random searches of employees and contractors at the exit gates. These searches are unscheduled and continue even though Twickenham is on care and maintenance and no blasting is taking place.”

5 October 2020: Aubrey Thobejane, a community activist in Modimolle, says soil erosion in his village could make the ground unstable and bring down power lines.

Miscarriages and drowning children

In Malesa’s village of Ga-Makgopa, the residents are affected by three mines: Twickenham and the opencast Sefateng and Chromax chrome mines. Several houses and other buildings have cracks, including a crèche and Makgopa Primary School. Malesa says those affected want compensation or for their houses to be rebuilt.

In addition, says Malesa, in 2017 an unprecedented number of pregnant women lost their unborn children. “In that year, about 20 pregnant women miscarried their babies,” she says, adding that some babies also died within a week of being born. 

The community believes it was because of heavy layers of dust coming from blasting operations at Sefateng and Chromax. “Initially we never understood why so many people would encounter such a problem. The dust from the opencast mines which covered the whole area was so thick and heavy,” says Malesa. Once the dust had disappeared, the number of miscarriages declined, she adds. 

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Unlicensed miners have also contributed to the residents’ problems. In 2018, Malesa says, they started working in an abandoned and unrehabilitated mining area next to her house. “It took those people about two months to extract the chrome underground and they left large holes.” These holes have absorbed water, creating a large pond filled with contaminated water. She says their livestock is lured to the pond and eventually die from drinking the water. More disturbingly, she says, “Children from the village also come to the holes to play in the contaminated water.” 

Not far from Malesa’s village, three children from Phashaskraal village drowned in an abandoned unlicensed mine. The victims were two siblings, eight-year-old Machaba and nine-year-old Itumeleng Ramabala, and their friend, Pabalelo Mokgwetha.

“The parents became suspicious when, at about [5pm], the children had not returned and were nowhere to be found. They searched the area and proceeded to the illegal mine hole, which was filled with water due to the recent rains that had fallen in the area. On arrival, they were met by the sight of their children’s clothes next to the ‘dam’ and started anticipating that the worst might have happened,” said Limpopo police spokesperson Captain Mamphaswa Seabi.

9 October 2020: Katlego Malesa, a human rights and environmental activist from Ga-Makgopa, shows where unlicensed miners started extracting chrome ore in 2018. They left large holes when they abandoned their operations after a few months.

Polluted water

Mining operations also threaten the very existence of people living near them. In Sekutlong village, which comprises about 112 households, the residents have to contend with polluted water from the Motse River. Tokelo Mahlakoane, 27, an environmental activist for Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua) and Women Affected by Mining United in Action (Wamua), says Twickenham mine’s Hackney shaft pollutes the village’s water. 

“Before the mine came, the water was drinkable and we were able to irrigate our crops. However, around 2010 we began noticing that we’d be having a running stomach and headache. The mine discharges toxic chemicals into the Motse River, which we depend on.” 

Mahlakoane says about 90% of the residents in Sekutlong are unemployed and yet they have to buy water for cooking and bathing, which many families can’t afford. “I went to Twickenham mine to explain our crisis. They said someone from the mine is coming to do a survey of what is needed. Since that day, no one has come,” she explains, adding that she’s approached the local office of the Department of Water and Sanitation to no avail.

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Marais said: “At Sekutlong, we have engaged extensively with the community over a number of years regarding the discharge of excess underground water into the Motse River. A community task team has been established and an elected community member is present when water samples are taken and tested for quality by Aquatico Scientific (Pty) Ltd. These results are shared with the community as and when requested. 

“It should also be noted that a number of reports, including by the [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] and the Department of Water and Sanitation, have highlighted the elevated nitrate levels in groundwater in various parts of Limpopo, both from natural sources and due to the extensive use of pit latrines where no formal sewage systems are in place, and this is the case in the Twickenham area.”

James Mohlatlole, a father of six, used to be a belt team supervisor at Hackney shaft. After working for the mine for 10 years, he was retrenched on 30 June 2016. He then pursued his other ambition, farming, and planted tomatoes, spinach, mealies, onion, carrots, butternut and chillies. “For survival, I sell my produce to the local people and supermarkets,” Mahlatlole says. All of his children are unemployed and he supports them from the proceeds of his produce.

But Mohlatlole’s vegetable garden is constantly under threat as well. Where it is based, there is a canal from which he and other small-scale farmers draw water for irrigation. However, when it rains too much, he says, the canal becomes clogged by sand and the water stops flowing. “Sometimes we have to stay for the whole month without water and we need to start afresh,” says Mohlatlole.

‘We’ve got no right to decide’

Most of the communities complain that mining companies do not consult them. Macua and Wamua mobilised community members across the country who are affected by mining to sign a petition asking that their consent must be obtained before companies are granted mining licences. It garnered 50 000 signatures and was handed over to the director-general of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, Thabo Mokoena, and Shonisani Mudua from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office at the Union Buildings on 12 October. They promised to respond to the concerns raised.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, a human rights and environmental activist from Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape, where the community won a decade-long fight to prevent the construction of a titanium mine in the area, addressed the attendees.

“Today we were supposed to be in high court to listen to how the minister of mineral resources and energy [Gwede Mantashe] argue why he thinks as residents of South Africa we’ve got no right to decide… When mining companies come to our communities, they promise us heaven and earth. But these promises are not in writing. This is because they like to keep us in the dark.”

She added: “We need to see the full mining application to challenge them if they don’t fulfil their promises. They’re taking our land, damaging our households and destroying our water and everything that we have. The land is ours and we have a right to decide. Money is nothing compared to the land we have.”

12 October 2020: People affected by mining gathered at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to hand over a petition with 50 000 signatures demanding that they be consulted prior to mining licences being granted.
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