By Thabang Mbulase

The names of environmental activists, Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe and Fikile Ntshangase who were brutally murdered, at separate times, for fighting big, powerful mining companies, will always be part of the painful reminder of the war against extraction and pollution of the environment.
The names of these two martyrs were joined by those of teenagers, Xolani Mthembu (17) and his 14-year-old friend, Sifiso Yende, who drowned in an abandoned coal mine while swimming.
Xolani and Sifiso drowned in an abandoned coal mine in Wesselton on the northern outskirts of Ermelo, Mpumalanga, in September 2016. The mine was last owned by Imbabala Coal (Pty) Ltd.
There are many others across the globe who have died fighting companies who violate their human rights. Bazooka, chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), was murdered by unknown assassins in 2016 for being in the forefront of the struggle to defend the land of his Xolobeni community in the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast against extractive capital. Two years ago, environmental activist, Ntshangase, was shot dead in her home by four gunmen in front of her grandson. She was a leading member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (Mcejo). She was also in the forefront as a member of a group that was taking legal action against a coal mining company, Tendele Coal Mining Limited in Somkhele. Somkhele is situated near the oldest nature reserve in Africa, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Residents of Riverlea, a township squeezed between Joburg and Soweto in Gauteng, are facing a problem of mines that are no longer used. They have been complaining for years about chest problems and other ailments caused by the dust from the mines and unsafe drinking water.
The struggles of the people of Xolobeni, Mfolozi, Wesselton and Riverlea are no different from the other mining struggles in other parts of South Africa and the globe, where mining companies are bullying communities in their quest to mine and destroy the environment. According to a report released in June by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the South African government has not taken adequate steps to ensure coal mining companies rehabilitate mining sites despite the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act that requires companies to do so.
The government, through the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), has done little to ensure sites are secured, let alone cleaned up after companies have abandoned them when they are no longer profitable.
HRW said there is an estimated 6,100 mines designated as derelict and ownerless as of 2021, an increase from the 5,906 derelict and ownerless mines reported during a previous audit in 2009.
These unsecured and unrehabilitated mines are a health hazard to domestic animals, children who use them as recreational facilities and the general population that resides near them.
Other members of society who are in danger are the artisan miners, popularly known as Zama-zamas, who hustle illegally for a living in these dangerous mines without following any health and safety precautions. Many of them die underground.
The unfortunate part is that some have no traceable relatives because they are undocumented in the country. There are also no records kept by the government of the Zama-zamas who die in these mines.
The HRW report also states that other “long-term impacts on human health include liver damage or death” because of acid mine drainage (AMD). AMD is caused by mines that are not cleaned. This results in leaching of highly acidic water.
“AMD can also release contaminants from ore such as arsenic, cyanide, mercury, lead and uranium. Even at low doses, research has demonstrated these chemicals to be dangerous to humans, particularly children, causing health problems, including skin irritation, kidney damage, neurological conditions, and cancer.
Cumulative exposure to these substances can cause death. Increased water acidity risks degraded soil quality, destruction of biodiversity and an inability to support aquatic life.
AMD impacts the ability of communities to access safe water for household needs, including drinking water, for livestock and to irrigate crops,” states the report.
Once a mine is abandoned, it is unlikely to be cleaned up, although there are legal mechanisms to try and ensure the clean-up will happen.
On 27 – 28 July the Alternative Information and Development Centre, together with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and Lawyers for Human Rights, held a two-day indaba which focused on the United Nations Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights in Joburg, Gauteng.
The Indaba brought together activists, academics and trade unionists working toward dismantling corporate power in Southern Africa to unpack the importance of a legally binding mechanism on business and human rights.
According to the organisers of the Indaba, in June 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution 26/9 to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.
The resolution was put forward by Ecuador and South Africa and adopted by a recorded vote of 20 to 14, with 13 abstentions. Out of 20 countries that voted in support, 10 were African countries, an indicator that the continent is ready to curb corporate impunity and hold corporations accountable.
At the Indaba the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, said impunity regarding human rights abuses by companies is increasing. It said evidence shows that communities seeking to protect their human rights from the actions of corporations face growing levels of violence and intimidation.
The UN Binding Treaty is to pave the way for justice for victims like Bazooka, Fikile and the two youngsters, Xolani and Sifiso who drowned in an abandoned mine and to hold big companies which may have been directly or indirectly behind their death to account.
The DMRE and the municipality governing Carolina were given ample time to respond to questions sent to them by The Telegram. The DMRE, after having promised to revert back as soon as possible, did not do so at the time of going to press. The Carolina Municipality also did not take up the offer of the right of reply sent to them.

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