Neels Blom Writer at large
Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

The Mpumalanga government is taking steps to exclude part of the water-critical Mabola Protected Environment from a mining prohibition to pave the way for the development of a coal mine.

The Mabola area near Wakkerstroom is part of the Enkangala Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, which constitutes the headwaters of several critically important rivers, including the Vaal.

Mabola is part of one of 21 strategic water resource areas, which together form the catchments for 50% of the country’s freshwater supply.

The Vaal River is the main contributor to the volume of the Vaal Dam and the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS), which supplies water to about 45% of SA’s population and the country’s industrial heartland.

The IVRS is already heavily polluted with domestic and industrial effluent flowing into the catchment because of failing municipal infrastructure. This necessitates inter-basin transfers of water to dilute effluent in contaminated rivers and raises the cost of purification.

The provincial government gave notice in its gazette published last Friday that it intends to exclude the area to, among other reasons, achieve a balance between the use of natural resources to the benefit of the community while "promoting environmental protection and sustainability".

Main beneficiary

The main beneficiary of the exclusion would be Atha-Africa Ventures, an Indian-owned company registered in SA. The underground mine, to be known as Yzermyn, is expected to operate for 15 years and provide 550 to 600 permanent jobs.

The province’s notice, issued by MEC Victor Shongwe, comes just days before the start on Tuesday of a judicial review of the mining application instituted by the Centre for Environmental Rights in which the civil society coalition seeks to overturn the environmental authorisation issued by the province’s environmental department.

Among other permissions it opposes, the coalition also seeks a judicial review of the mining right granted to Atha-Africa by former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane and the approval of these by the late environmental affairs minister, Edna Molewa.

The province’s application seeks an exception under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, which prohibits mining in a protected area even if other statutory permissions have
been granted.

The coalition’s specific objections are mainly about groundwater pollution resulting from acid mine drainage, which Atha-Africa has said would be contained. It is also concerned about the creation of a precedent that would lead to mineral exploitation in protected areas elsewhere in the country.