If you stood on the hills of Kliprand farm near Newcastle in northern KwaZulu-Natal two years ago, grasslands would have rolled down gently from your feet towards the villages built around the Buffalo River to the north. A handful of households and a few grazing herds would have speckled the green slope.
If you turned to the left, you would have seen the expanse of Madadeni. Above the township, you may have seen a blanket of smoke, pumped out by ArcelorMittal’s Newcastle works, the giant steel plant that makes up the slim economic hopes of many of Madadeni’s 120 000 residents.
If you stand on those hills east of Newcastle today, the view is very different. Trucks, graders and other heavy machines now make their way in and out of a giant gash in the earth where homesteads once stood, and across the developing lunar landscape that surrounds it.
This is the Kliprand Colliery, the first phase of Ikwezi Mining’s Newcastle Project. The Australian company will eventually tap more than 12 000 hectares of South Africa’s largest remaining undeveloped coal resources.
When coal culls
If you look just a little beyond the colliery, you might see the empty laundry line in Makhebengwana Hadebe’s front yard. Since mining began, Hadebe, 64, says he has been unable to hang his washing outside. If the wind is blowing, the colliery’s opencast operations, taking place a stone’s throw from his doorstep, stain it black within the hour.
“Before you took that vote, I was here,” says Hadebe, referring to the elections in 1994. Hadebe, who has lived here since 1984, is one of those South Africans for whom the past is still so near that he refers to his ID book as a “pass”.
Ikwezi will soon relocate him, he says, but he fears that the noise and dust belched up by the mine will still reach him. He points out the 36m2 spot where the company will build his new home; it isn’t more than 500m down the road.
Hadebe is also concerned that his relocation will do little to lift the new restrictions on his ploughing and grazing. He once grew cabbage, mielies and potatoes where the trucks now haul loads of coal. His herd of 12 cattle also grazed there.
One of the herds that once shared the fields with Hadebe’s belonged to the family of Minah Zwane, who will turn 80 later this month. In a punctuated interview (she is regularly interrupted by the rattle of trucks en route to the mine), Zwane told New Frame how the herd has been reduced from 14 to 10 since Ikwezi began operations. One cow fell into the opencast pit, she says. She suspects that the other three, one of which was pregnant, drank water poisoned by the mine’s run-off.
Hadebe and Zwane are among the many villagers who told New Frame they were not consulted about the mine opening on their doorstep – the first they heard of it was the loud blasting, which began in 2018.
On Wednesday 3 April, 22 villagers are scheduled to appear in the Madabeni magistrate’s court on charges of public violence after their frustration at what they call Ikwezi’s repeated broken promises boiled over in protest near the mine’s gates on 24 January.
One of the accused, Sipho Khanyi, says the protracted negotiations between the mine and local communities that followed the start of operations at Kliprand came to little. Unfulfilled promises made at public meetings in November 2018 – including the relocation of gravesites within the mine, lessening its environmental impact, the relocation of families evicted by the mine, and the employment of local labour and contractors – were the straw that broke the camel’s back, according to Khanyi.
Ikwezi’s legal and compliance officer, Bonani Ndlovu, has denied “whatever allegations” have been made by community members. Ndlovu maintains that villagers were properly consulted, and says the majority of the mine’s workers come from “local areas and communities” across the Amajuba District Municipality – an area of almost 7 000 km2.
Ikwezi chairperson David Pile’s most recent report to shareholders says the employment of local labour and contractors is an imperative “to the extent that they are commercially competitive”.
Coal’s uncertain future
The beginning of Ikwezi’s operations has flown largely beneath the radar. It is not among the 684 mining licences being tracked by #MineAlert, for instance, an extensive environmental impact assessment project set up by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism.
The company recorded a loss of nearly R7 million for the second half of 2018, when it borrowed more than R40 million from one of South Africa’s coal giants, Osho. But it is confident that the ground it has finally broken at Kliprand, together with current coal prices, means that profits are on the horizon. In emails, Ndlovu says the company is certain “there will be a market for its coal during the life of its mining right”.
Around the time the company was granted that right, in 2012, forecasts for new coal mines such as Ikwezi were rosy. By 2035, according to Climate Policy Initiative (CPI) models, 80% of all exported coal would come from new mines. Things have changed a great deal since then. Based on recent trends, new mines will only be contributing 22% of coal exports in 2035. If the Paris Agreement targets are met, new mines will contribute virtually nothing to coal exports.
While the Richards Bay Coal Terminal – where Pile was once a director – processed and shipped a record amount of coal in 2017, there has been a dramatic decrease in global forecasts. One recent report shows that 2018 was the third-highest year on record for coal retirements, while 31 countries have started phasing coal out entirely.
The shifting terrain of coal is down to its overwhelming contribution to the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.
A possible transition to low-carbon energy in global markets poses a serious risk to a South African economy that has been slow to take up the call. According to the CPI, that risk could approach as much as R1.8 trillion.
Most of the risk comes from a looming decline in coal exports of 73% by 2035. (Declining prospects for coal shipped by sea means that more than half of the nearly R1.8 trillion risk has already been realised.)
Investment in new coal mines such as Ikwezi might be left stranded by a transition to low carbon. Less than a year into operations at the Kliprand Colliery, the property, plant and equipment alone are worth more than R270 million.
The afterlife of a mine
The disruptions brought on by the Kliprand Colliery have not been limited to the world of the living. The lonely white markers of the many graves yet to be exhumed, around which Ikwezi has started its operations, protrude from the mine’s rubble like property pegs marking the mine’s ghostly boundaries.
Twenty of these graves belong to the family of Victoria Hadebe, 67, whose home once stood where coal is now being hauled from the earth. Her husband is still buried there. So are six of her children.
Victoria’s is one of the only families who says they were consulted before the mining began. Theirs was one of six homes that needed to be relocated before the digging could start. Unlike three of these, who resisted and were eventually evicted by court order and force, Victoria agreed to her family’s relocation.
Ndlovu claims that Victoria is “satisfied with the ongoing processes to relocate the graves”. Sitting on a plush new living room set, however, she explained to New Frame that while she is happy with the airy new home Ikwezi built for her, she has struggled to sleep since her family’s relocation. “I’m only thinking of them [her family members still buried at the mine], you see? I’m only thinking of them,” she said.