The hidden costs of mining: Part 2

The South African Human Rights Commission has directed government to consider new measures to protect communities affected by mining.

In the second instalment of our two part piece on the hidden costs of mining, New Frame unpacks the South African Human Rights Commission’s far-reaching recommendations, which were published on 21 August 2018, after a series of national hearings in 2016.


The commission noted that some parts of the country serve as strategic areas for water supply. Though they cover just 8% of South Africa’s total surface area, they provide nearly 50% of the country’s water and should therefore be considered as strategic national assets vital to the country’s water security.

“The commission finds that due to the potentially severe impact of mining-related activities on sensitive and protected areas, mining licences should be granted only in exceptional circumstances, under restricted conditions and following public consultation. Legislation should also be strengthened to give the Minister of Water and Sanitation power to restrict or ban harmful activities in these areas.”

The commission was told that mining often leads to a reduction in the volume or quality of water for local communities because of the large amounts of water needed in most mining operations.

“The commission is cognisant of the fact that irresponsibly conducted mining operations may frequently give rise to the contamination of water sources. Acid mine drainage in particular has long-lasting impacts – it sterilises soil and contaminates food crops, poses a risk to biodiversity, and is dangerous to health.

“It is not uncommon to find that local communities do not have access to sufficient water to provide for their … most basic needs … Even where water shortages have been exacerbated by droughts or an influx of people, mining operations directly contribute to this situation and cannot continue to operate without regard to the difficulties experienced by mining-affected communities.”

Tendele mining company, which draws water from the Umfolozi River to feed its Somkhele coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal, told the commission it had provided several hand pumps for people to reach borehole water, along with up to 12 water trucks a day during the recent drought.

“The mine, however, submitted that notwithstanding the fact that it is drawing water from natural sources within the community, it is ‘in no way obligated to provide this water to the community but does so out of goodwill’.”

The commission noted that characterising this as “an act of goodwill” was incongruent with the requirements of the National Water Act. It expressed concern about the tone of a separate submission by Tendele, in which the company suggested that some members of the local community were causing divisions in the community and acting “illegally” by forming structures that were not recognised by the local tribal authority.

The commission found there was an immediate need to ensure water-use licences contain more stringent conditions to protect access to water by communities and the ecology. The Department of Water Affairs should also provide the commission with a written report on the impact mining has on the volume of water reserved for basic human needs and the environment.

Health and environment

Several communities were concerned about the impacts of air pollution, dust fallout, blasting and other mining impacts on their health and food security.

The commission also voiced concern about the new “One Environmental System”, which gives authority to the Department of Mineral Resources (not the Department of Environmental Affairs) to approve environmental authorisation for mining and enforce compliance for mining operations.

Suggesting this was akin to leaving the fox in charge of the hen house, the commission found that the Department of Mineral Resources was not the appropriate authority for granting environmental impact approvals for mining.

It also found there was also a lack of clarity on the role of the National Nuclear Regulator in remediating abandoned mines with elevated radiation levels, adding that the regulator had huge capacity constraints and did not have the funding or specialised staff to monitor or rehabilitate contaminated sites. “In the light of the potentially severe and long-lasting impacts of contaminated sites, the state must prioritise remediation and funding for the [regulator].

“To address concerns about air pollution and other mine-related health impacts, the commission has directed the mining department, the national health department and other parties to commission a new study on community health, with special emphasis on respiratory and brain health.

“These departments should also introduce new mechanisms to monitor the health of mine-affected communities and ensure that this data is publicly accessible.”

Proper consultation and access to information

The commission noted that mining companies are required by law to consult affected communities, but many chose to rather consult government departments. “In some cases, mining companies conducted consultations with small portions of communities or traditional councils on the mistaken assumption that they represent the broader interests of local communities.”

Some traditional councils also presented themselves as “custodians”, and signed agreements that excluded other community groups. “Some community members highlighted the fact that people are afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations, particularly where there is a fear that traditional councils have been ‘bought over’. Others are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment.

“While the commission acknowledges the importance of traditional structures and prescription to customary law, it is also important to ensure that consultative mechanisms protect minority or dissenting voices.”

The commission emphasised that community consent must be free of any form of manipulation, coercion or pressure, and found that communities are often denied enough time and information to make decisions.

Communities are not homogenous entities, but complex structures made up of multiple groups. Although some companies attempt to establish community forums to improve transparency and participation, this could give rise to unintended consequences “such as the potential growth of powerful elites who act as gatekeepers for opportunities meant to benefit communities more broadly”.

Another frequent complaint that emerged was that company consultants emphasise the potential benefits of mining while downplaying the risks and negative effects. Documents are mostly written in English and riddled with technical, scientific or legal terminology.

There is also an often unjustifiable “culture of secrecy” by companies, which attempt to classify certain information as confidential.

“The commission has noted, however, that the term ‘confidential’ is oftentimes used loosely as a mechanism to protect mining companies from any form of risk. The Department of Mineral Resources must ensure that all reports, with the exception of strictly confidential information (as determined by the department), are immediately made available to the public.”

Part one:

All parties to whom directives and recommendations have been addressed are required to provide a detailed written report to the commission in six months, and again in 12 months, from the date of receipt of the final report. The full 106-page report can be downloaded here .

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