Goats graze next to one of the many rural homes that have been abandoned or demolished to make way for coal mining in the Somkhele area of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: ROB SYMONS
Goats graze next to one of the many rural homes that have been abandoned or demolished to make way for coal mining in the Somkhele area of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: ROB SYMONS

Mounting tension over the proposed Tendele coal mine expansion with the murder of a local activist threatens mining in the area and could have adverse implications for SA’s embattled ferrochrome industry, says the company.

Tendele Mining, 80% owned by diversified miner Petmin, has operated the Somkhele mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal since 2007. The mine’s coal resources are almost depleted. Production from the existing mining area is expected to cease entirely by June 2022.

Tendele CEO Jan du Preez said production had already fallen  significantly, 150 employees were retrenched with more to come and working hours had been reduced.

A planned expansion to the north of the existing operations was expected to give the mine a new lease on life, enabling it to operate at full capacity for 10 years. Du Preez said this would also enable it to continue to be a key supplier of anthracite coal to SA’s ferrochrome industry, which employs 75,000 people, but it was challenged by rising input costs.

Opposition in the community has, however, delayed Tendele’s expansion plans by more than two years. The issue became one of public concern in October when news of the murder of a community activist in the area made headlines.

Fikile Ntshangase, a 65-year-old community activist opposed to the expansion, was gunned down in her home on October 22. Ntshangase was a prominent member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO), which opposes the planned expansion.

A key sticking point in the expansion plan is a relocation programme in which 145 families are required to move from their ancestral land. According to Tendele, 128 households have signed on while 17 have yet to do so.

Only once all agreements are concluded will the households receive the agreed financial compensation of an average of R750,000 per family. Tendele said Ntshangase’s household is not in the relocation area.

Nathi Kunene, Tendele’s community manager, said the remaining households were willing to relocate but the main hurdle was that they wanted more money than the mine is offering — between R3m and R10m.

Apart from the relocation challenge, two court cases which threaten the planned expansion have been brought against the mine by the community organisation MCEJO.  

A case to interdict the mine’s expansion was heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal earlier in November and awaits judgment. A review application is set to be heard in March next year.

Du Preez said that minutes and a video recording from a meeting on October 23 show that the Somkhele MCEJO branch resolved to withdraw from the legal challenges and to instruct their attorneys to do so.

However, MCEJO’s legal representative, Kirsten Youens, told  Business Day she had received no such instruction and, on the contrary, had been asked by MJECO to proceed with litigation.

Du Preez said he could not comment on why Youens had so far not withdrawn, but Tendele intended to now file an affidavit outlining why it believed Youens Attorneys did not have the required mandate to continue acting for MCEJO Somkhele in the review application.

Tendele’s expanded operations are expected to create 1,600 jobs a year, with 87% of employees living in the local community. Du Preez said more than 20,000 community members directly benefit from the mine, which has a major positive economic impact on the area.

“The Tendele team and I have faith and hope that we will find a solution. We cannot allow ... an area to lose 1,600 jobs,” Du Preez said.

In a joint statement issued by MCEJO and other NGOs in October, the groups said Tendele’s coal mining operations have caused “untold destruction of the environment and the homes and livelihoods of the residents of Somkhele”.

The groups called on Tendele to stop offering incentives to impoverished community members with the inevitable consequence of sewing deep division.

steynl@businesslive.co.za

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