51 Walking on caves of fire

This blog was written in May 2013 after a field visit to coal mines polluted communities in the Witbank area of South Africa[1]

Mining always leaves its footprints in both the sands of time and on the lives of the people and their lives. You may think you have seen it all— especially if you have seen or lived in the horrors of oil activities in the Niger Delta. I thought so too, particularly because I have devoted at least two decades of my life in persistent pursuit of polluted lands (at home and abroad) searching for ways to comprehend the great harm generated by extractive activities.

Some of the places that have left deep impressions in my heart are documented in my book Oilwatching in South America – Or, Guana Guara – Mudfish Out of Water a Pollution Tour Of Venezuela, Curaçao, Peru & Ecuador. This book is more or less the diary of a pollution tour of these countries carried out in 1997 under the auspices of Oilwatch International. Others can be found in To Cook a Continent – Destructive Extraction and Climate Impacts on Africa.

After many years of following the heavy pollution of communities in South West Durban in South Africa, and with kin ears for developments related to proposed fracking in the Karoo, I was still not prepared for the level of impacts from mining in Witbank, Old Coronation mine and other Highveld communities. This filed trip was organised by groundWork (Friends of the Earth South Africa)[2] as a prelude to Oilwatch Africa[3] conference that was held in Midrand mid May 2013. In the group were activists from eleven African countries.

The field trip in Mpumalanga Province where mines literally turned to walking in minefields! No, we did not rush to the mines. Our first port of call was the offices of the South African Green Revolutionary Council (SAGRC) at Witbank. It was early in the morning, but the comrades were already waiting to receive us. Led by Matthews Hlabane, we were quickly given a short introduction to the Witbank.

Mining started here in 1896 and with it began a reign of land grabbing and pollutions. From the 1950s the environmental problems began to intensify and were glaring and undeniable. Acid mine drainage polluted the water and coal dusts took over the air. With these contaminants it was not a surprise that the locals began to suffer from headaches, dizziness, kidney failures and other diseases.

We were informed that there are eight coal-fired plants in Witbank and up to seven hundred (700) mines from where coal and platinum are dug. But that is not all. There is a pile of 5,000 applications for mining permits, with many of them ‘linked to the ruling party,’ we were told. Overall, there are 6,000 abandoned mines in the country and among these are the abandoned coal mines of the Highveld.

He regretted that there were no direct gains to the community even though so much ‘wealth’ was being excavated from beneath their feet. The coal extracted is used for electricity generation and for export. The level of contamination here is so high that an estimated 30 billion Rand will be needed for environmental rehabilitation.

Our visit took us to the abandoned Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Mine (TMDB). On arrival we were greeted by a mountain range of waste and polluted water seeping from the tremendous pile. Walking in this field requires extreme caution. We had to go in a single file, trusting that our guide knew what spot to tread and which could be considered as safe ground. We were bemused and some thought it was preposterous for anyone to insist that we couldn’t walk where we pleased. Soon enough we all saw why rebellion was not a good option here. There were cracks in the ground best picked out by trained eyes.

We soon knew we were in the devil’s territory when we began to smell sulphur. And then we saw heat waves simmering from holes ahead of us. The smell got stronger as we moved nearer. We were walking over caves of fire. A once luscious land was now 880 hectares of hell!

We were told of, and shown sinkholes scattered in the fields. Any place could crack up any time and a yelp may be the only goodbye to be heard before the victims disappear into the netherworld. These mines are located between two Townships and kids and others traverse these burning mines daily either to school or to work. Some kids are said to have fallen into these sinkholes. And someone hazarded that criminals may also have used these burning pits as convenient places to bury their crimes.

Spontaneous fires started in the mines in the 1930s and they were eventually closed in the 1950s. Interesting. It is said that the fires in the mines were burning both the roof supporting pillars and the roofs themselves. We guess that before the mines were closed, perhaps while one portion of the mine was burning, miners were pressed to keep digging in other parts. That can be understood in an apartheid context. But why are the flames not extinguished and the land remediated today?

Our friends told us that because of lack of adequate public response to their complaints about the air quality and other pollutants, they have had to train themselves on how to manage for themselves. In fact, we were told of occasions when officials brought testing equipment and the community folks were the ones who showed the officials how the equipment was operated. Talk of community empowerment! Tests show that some of the water bodies here are either very acidic or highly alkaline.

Leaving the field of horror, we passed by the Vanchem Ltd factory. Our comrades asked us to look up at the sky. Thick smoke bellowed from the stacks. That was not surprising. But they asked us to note that no birds were flying in the area. Well, that was true. ‘They simply die if they try,’ we were told. Okay. Get me out of here!

We were told that to keep healthy, workers in this factory are compelled to drink milk everyday. I could not laugh. I have personally heard at an environmental health workers workshop of oil company workers (machine operators) in Nigeria who are urged to drink milk as a way of keeping their bodies purified of pollutants. This myth has also been heard of in India. Workers are kept in the dark hope that milk eliminates the impacts of pollution. See Chapter 17 The ‘milking’ of oil workers in this book for more about this and the cynical actions of corporations.

Our next port of call was the Old Coronation Township sitting on Old Coronation coal mines. The ground here is very unstable. We were taken to a huge pit into which a preschool disappeared after the ground gave way in 2012. Sinkholes started happening here more than five decades ago.

Many residents of this township ‘mine’ coal in huge waste heaps in the neighbourhood. Stories abound of kids and women who met their death here when the pile of waste collapsed on them as they dug for the carbon needed for cooking and for heating their shacks.

It was one story of woe after another. We saw women and kids digging for occasional lumps of coal. We heard of resource and job opportunities conflicts with migrant workers from the SADC region. We saw extensive acid/water ponds, devoid of life.

‘The graves in Highveld are full,’ one comrade tells us. ‘If you live here and drink the water, there is a 70 per cent chance you will end up with liver problems.’ Sadly, kids sometimes swim in the warm ponds and there is a chance that they gulp in the lethal water. There is a high incidence of sinusitis, asthma, tuberculosis and other diseases.

‘The doctors work with the mines and the mines work with the government. The people are left to fall through the cracks. The Highveld is a compost,’ another comrade insists.

We were thoroughly depressed at this point. Getting to watch a youth drama group perform was hopefully going to be a relief. Soon we were gathered in a community hall built and donated by a mining company! Speeches and tales of woe from various cities, townships and communities, the Mpumalanga Youth Against Climate Change drama group took centre stage.

The acting was excellent and the storyline and message were clear and direct. Global warming was better termed ‘global burning’ and humans were shown as anointed to be the most foolish species on earth. The youngsters declared, ‘our governments have failed us, but we will not fail ourselves.’

As we left these heavily polluted communities, Comrade Matthew declared that the Witbank is the most polluted city in the world. A Nigerian comrade retorted that the Niger Delta was the most polluted region on earth. An argument ensued but was happily settled that one was a city and the other a region. But best of all, we ought to be arguing about which is the cleanest and safest, not which is most abused by capital. Would either of these places ever return to health?


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