Photo Essay | Wesselton’s coal-mining scars

Impoverished communities in Mpumalanga know all too well that life near the coal mines, whether they’re active or abandoned, means danger, pollution, illness and even death.

Wesselton lies on the northern outskirts of Ermelo, a town in the Highveld area of South Africa’s coal-rich Mpumalanga province. The township is hemmed in on both sides by abandoned and unrehabilitated coal mines. To the southeast, the landscape is scarred by the ripped earth, mine pits and polluted tailings left by the disused Imbabala mine, while to the northeast are the abandoned shafts of Golfview mine, where underground fires are burning in the coal seams, and wetlands have been polluted. 

Imbabala was abandoned in 2011 when the Department of Mineral Resources ordered operations to stop because the mine was operating without a water-use licence. Only R600 000 is available for the site’s rehabilitation, but to date the funds have not been released. Anker Coal & Mineral Holdings, the owners of Golfview mine, avoided its liability for rehabilitation by entering into business rescue and shutting down operations in 2015. 

While the mining companies have moved on to greener pastures, the Wesselton community has been left exposed to the multiple hazards of polluted rivers, toxic mine tailings and a landscape dotted with blackened pits and unstable shafts. Livestock are poisoned, people get sick and many residents have lost their lives, among them children playing in the abandoned shafts.


Many members of the older generation in Wesselton know these mines intimately, having worked on them before they closed. Years of exploitative work both underground and in pits have left many with lung diseases such as silicosis and tuberculosis.

Poverty and high unemployment have seen the younger generation turn to the abandoned mine shafts to dig out coal as a means to make a living. Referred to informally and pejoratively as zama zamas (a colloquial term stemming from isiZulu that means “to try and try again”), these unlicensed miners are generally perceived in a negative light and treated as criminals. 

Preferring to call themselves artisanal miners, they do not regard their work as illegal. Rather, they view it as taking back ownership of the mineral riches in the earth that was rightfully theirs before foreign mining companies pushed them off the land and exploited their labour. 

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Instead of being persecuted and arrested by the authorities, they want government support so that their mining operations can be formalised. Recognition and formalisation would enable a safer working environment, provide access to formal coal markets and help protect them from unscrupulous middlemen. 

For a community so harshly affected by past coal mining practices, such recognition and assistance would be just. But the government has largely been unwilling to engage with them and they remain persecuted and in a precarious position.

And so the residents of Wesselton are left to fend for themselves. On the one hand reliant on coal for an income and a source of cheap fuel for cooking and warmth, but on the other ravaged by the dangers, sickness and pollution left by the legacy of coal mining in the town, they are trapped in a catch-22.

13 August 2020: Money has been set aside to rehabilitate the mine pit outside Wesselton, but to date it has not been released.
13 August 2020: Miners prepare to descend into the Mastepiseni mine. The mine is worked 24 hours a day by teams who refer to themselves as artisanal miners working 12-hour shifts.
13 August 2020: A miner at the Mastepiseni coalface. The work is lonely, gruelling and extremely dangerous, with the ever-present threat of rock collapses or poisoning from the release of toxic gases trapped in the coal seams.
13 August 2020: The miners at Khalanyoni work in teams of two or three, with the ‘blasters’ at the coalface and the ‘shuttle cars’ ferrying coal to the surface. They are formal mining terms but with no machinery, artisanal miners rely solely on muscle power.
13 August 2020: After a shift, the miners sell their coal to dealers, who fetch it in bakkies and trucks. They sell it to coalyards in Wesselton, which then sell it to residents of the township. Some dealers allegedly sell this coal to Eskom.
12 August 2020: Nomzamo Eco Village resident Themba Ngubeni waters his vegetable garden. Demarcated plots are spread out to avoid overcrowding and give residents space to plant as they take ownership of rehabilitating the mined land.
13 August 2020: An underground fire burning in a coal seam on the abandoned Golfview mine near Wesselton causes the earth to crack, releasing toxic fumes and creating dangerously unstable ground.
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