The Mabola Protected Environment. Picture: FLICKR
The Mabola Protected Environment. Picture: FLICKR

A pretty low-level politician, Vusumuzi Shongwe, MEC for land & environmental affairs and other minor matters for Mpumalanga, unfortunately has some far-reaching powers. 

Since 2015 a bunch of people have fought to stop coal mining in one of the precious strategic water-source areas our country has. Naturally it is a protected area — or was.

A coalition of eight public interest organisations, including influential ones such as BirdLife SA, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, WWF, the Centre for Environmental Rights and others, have been winning time after time in court to stop the coal mine: it defeated former environment affairs minister Edna Molewa and former mineral affairs minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who unlawfully gave permission for the mining. The high court awarded punitive costs against the ministers.

Four attempts by the would-be mine to challenge the ruling failed. The full bench of the high court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and eventually the Constitutional Court upheld the judgment.

Years of extensive research, planning and consultation by government agencies, from environmental affairs to the Water Research Commission and Mpumalanga Tourism resulted in the Mabola Protected Environment at Wakkerstroom being declared water strategic under the 2014 Act.

This should give it long-life protection, for strategic water areas provide 50% of all SA’s scarce fresh water.

This particular one supports Johannesburg, Tshwane, various other areas in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, plus agriculture and rural towns. Compromising it would have devastating consequences far beyond some minor politician’s lifespan.

The mining company wants to build a 15-year coal mine inside the area. Expert evidence says this would contribute to drying up wetlands and streams in the area and contaminate ground and surface water.

Shongwe has now published his decision to revoke the protected area status for part of the Mabola Protected Environment, to allow the mine to go ahead. A cynical way to circumvent court rulings. 

Peter Sullivan

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