The Mpumalanga government is considering granting an Indian company, Atha-Africa Ventures, permission to mine coal on 2 750.343 hectares of a protected area, after environmentalists had derailed its plans through litigation.
Atha-Africa had run out of options since the Pretoria High Court withdrew its mining permits earlier this year. It also lost two appeals against the court order.
Now Vusi Shongwe, the provincial MEC for agriculture, rural development, land reform and environmental affairs, has given the company some hope that it may be able to establish the Yzermyn underground coal mine in the Mabola Protected Environment, outside Wakkerstroom.
Shongwe is canvassing public opinion on his decision to exclude the targeted mining area from the existing protected environment.
The Mabola Protected Environment was declared protected by Mpumalanga’s former economic development and environmental affairs MEC, Pinky Phosa, in 2014.
In a notice published this week, Shongwe said he took the decision to ensure a balanced use of natural resources for the socioeconomic benefit of all citizens while promoting environmental protection and sustainability.
He also said that he premised his decision on the need to promote the coexistence of mining activities and conservation within the area and to grow both South Africa’s economy and that of the Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme Local Municipality in Volksrust.
Shongwe’s decision comes three weeks after Atha-Africa filed papers in the Constitutional Court as a final resort in the protracted legal dispute.
Zanele Shabangu, spokesperson for the agriculture department, said Shongwe had received a petition from the community asking him to exclude the area.
“The MEC will receive written representations or objections from members of the community and other interested parties on the matter,” she said.
“He will then make an assessment and give a final judgement based on those inputs, of which an outcome cannot be pre-empted.
“His judgement, which will be his prerogative as a member of the executive, will also be guided by section 29(b) of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (2003),” Shabangu added.
Former president Jacob Zuma’s nephews, Sizwe Christopher Zuma and Vincent Gezinhliziyo Zuma, have shares in Atha-Africa through the Bashubile Trust.
The company was granted the licence to establish the Yzermyn mine after the provincial government had declared the Mabola area protected – a decision that angered environmental organisations.
Environmentalists have argued that the area should be protected from mining activities because it is an important water resource – a source of the Usuthu, Tugela, Vaal and Pongola rivers.
If the area is mined, they warn, it would affect the availability of clean water for surrounding communities.
A pressure group, The Voice Community Representative Council, has been supporting Atha-Africa Ventures throughout this saga because, its members say, they are interested in job creation in the impoverished Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme municipality.
The unemployment rate in the area stands at 33.7%, according to a Stats SA 2016 community survey. The mine is expected to create about 600 permanent jobs and 2 000 indirect ones throughout its 15-year lifespan.