Judge in a quandary over coal mine

Judge in a quandary over coal mine

A  court is weighing the options in a legal challenge to stop operations at a Zululand mine. Thabiso Goba reports

Closing down the Somkhele coal mine near the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park could have serious economic impact, a Pietermaritzburg High Court judge said last week.

At the same time, the harm the opencast mine does to the environment and the community cannot be ignored, said Judge Rishi Seegobin.

Seegobin was commenting on an application bought before the court seeking to have the mine shut on the grounds that it was operating illegally and causing harm in the neighbouring poor community.

The application was brought by Global Environment Trust (GET) after a two-year struggle to get the matter to court. The application was supported by 3000 members of Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization and Sabelo Dladla, a Somkhele resident who lives near the mine.

Adverse impact

The Somkhele mine is owned by Tendele Coal Mining – the country’s largest producer of metallurgical anthracite and a major supplier to ferrochrome producers.

Advocate Peter Lazarus, representing Tendele, conceded that mining adversely affected the environment but said this must be weighed against the jobs and skills development it brought to the community.

Lazarus  said the Environmental Mining Programmes granted by the Department of Mineral Resources in 2007, when Tendele first started its operations at the KwaZulu-Natal mine, covered all the authorisation it needed.

But GET’s advocate, Alistair Dickson said the mine lacked proper environmental, land usage and waste management authorisations.

“The company is making huge profits operating illegally and they want to expand this,” he said, “They were supposed to get authorisation before they commenced mining.”

Domino effect

During argument, Seegobin expressed concern that closing the mine – even temporarily to enable it to get the necessary licences – would have a disastrous domino effect on industry.

“We have to take into account the impact that would result from shutting down the mine, at a socio-economic and community level,” said Seegobin.


OUTSIDE THE COURT: Protesters demonstrate against the Somkhele coal mine. Pictures: Rob Symons



In response to GET’s application, the traditional council of the surrounding area of Mpukunyone, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, made representations as friends of the court.

Representing the traditional council, Advocate Dennis Sibuyi, appealed to the court not to entertain thoughts of a complete shutdown. He said this would lead to mass unemployment in the community. In court documents, the mine said  it employs about 1000 people, most of them locals.

Seegobin acknowledged this, but said the court had to take into account the mine’s negative impact. He referred to other Amici (friends of the court) submissions, including social impact studies and the recently released South African Human Rights Commission Report, which documented serious environmental and health impacts.

Seegobin said as much as Tendele might argue that they are operating legally, we can’t “lose sight of these issues”.

Time needed

He said he needed time to consider all these matters before delivering judgement.

“This is a complex matter. Don’t contact me or come knocking on my door until three months have passed,” said Seegobin.

Attorney Kirsten Youens outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court. Picture: Supplied

At the end of the hearing, the applicant’s legal team was greeted by a chorus of ululating and cheering from a crowd of 200 anti-mining protestors who had been bussed in from Zululand.

Dladla, a co-applicant in the case, said getting the mine to court was a victory in itself.

In a statement released after the hearing, GET’s attorney, Kirsten Youens said: “Our argument is that if Tendele has no environmental authorisations, no waste management licenses, no cultural heritage permits and no planning permission, it is operating illegally. For the mine, to continue operating in spite of this, would be to clothe illegal acts in the legitimacy of a court order.”

“We trust that Judge Seegobin will be strong in his statement against mining in contravention of the law and find in favour of thousands of people who want justice and confirmation that #LawApplies2All,” said Youens. – Roving Reporters


  • This story was updated. Addtional reporting, Fred Kockott


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