Dannhauser is a small town that has faced environmental injustices for almost a century owing to coal mining, and little has been done to address these issues . One example is of the Ikwezi coal mining project, which bullied and used underhanded tactics to demolish homes for a new mine without prior and informed consent . The mine was granted permits in 2011. Community members such as 86-year-old Ernest Ngwenya exhausted all options trying to get the municipality and mine to relocate them, but despite promises of relocation in 2015, their pleas went unanswered .
On December 13, 2017, Ikwezi was granted a court order to relocate families to establish its mine, though residents denied ever agreeing to having their homes demolished. Affected families worked with Oxfam and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) for legal action against Ikwezi. Yet the families were still displaced in the presence of the police and court sheriff. Ikwezi repeatedly denied that it failed to consult locals, however, local activist and grandmother Dude Hadebe refuted the claim. According to her, “when the sheriff arrived with the eviction order a day before the bulldozers moved in, they did not recognise any of the names of the people on the court order. The families refused to sign the order, after which the messenger placed it under a rock and left. The next morning, the community awoke to the roar of bulldozers” . Hadebe’s home had been demolished without compensation for the loss of the family home, furniture, cattle, and dignity. She now is squatting on a relative’s land near Osizweni in Newcastle .
Traditionally a subsistence farming interdependent community, the mining changed the town’s social structure and livelihood. People are now strangers and have lost their traditional ways of living. Cultural and spiritual estrangement from the land comes not only from complicated financial situations from loss of livelihood, but also from residents losing land their ancestors have lived on, performed rites on, and been buried in for generations. For instance, indigenous Nguni people living in Dannhauser lost many gravesites to the Ikwezi Coal Mine. Beyond just the bones, this deeply hurt the community because “these represent something deeper … if you dig up a grave and remove the remains, you are committing witchcraft,” explains activist and community leader Lucky Shabalala, part of environmental and land rights NGO Sisonke .
Moreover, as Ngwenya reports, “At least twice a week there is an explosion, and that is the main reason our houses are cracking and the ceiling boards are collapsing.” He also adds, “I am old, and the smoke that comes out of the mine is not healthy for me … the explosions were so loud they shook the house. Every year we plant crops. But this year we could not because there was no space. I had a lot of livestock, but they, too, have died … I suspect it is the grass being affected by some chemicals from the mine that killed them … We did complain to the mine, municipality, and the department about all of this, but nothing is being done … The mine is not treating us well. We had our graveyard where the mine is currently operating, yet we have never got a cent or any form of compensation” . Black dust from the mining also caused many to be hospitalized .
On April 18 and 19 2018, the community protested at the KZN Mining Indaba and Mining Charter consultation events to submit memorandums that groundWork helped write to Gwede Mantashe (Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy . They called on the minister to act against the Ikwezi coal mine that had forcefully relocated people and dug up their graves without proper consultation. The minister failed to respond to the memorandums . Subsequently, the community protested again on May 29, getting the Minister to finally sign the memorandum. On June 1, 2018, the Department of Mineral Resources suspended Ikwezi Mine’s license owing to how it unlawfully failed to comply with the social and labour plan despite having had the mining rights for six years, and how the mine transgressed the approved environmental management programme by tampering with graves on the farm Kliprand despite committing not to disturb gravesites in the approved document. However, the suspension was lifted in October 2018, and groundWork noted that “There were no communication efforts made to inform the community and the general public about the mine resuming its operations” and that the community was not consulted on the conditions and corrective measures the mine must accept to continue operation. Moreover, groundWork states that “Ikwezi Coal Mine continues to operate within or next to gravesites; and Ikwezi Coal Mine has not adhered to the social and labour plan as an outlined requirement in the issuing of mining rights” .
In March 2019, Tshabalala led farmers in a protest against Ikwezi for mining near graves and fencing them off so that community members could not visit them. Locals were also upset that the mine did not fulfill court orders to relocate graves and the community before starting operations as well as running over livestock with their machinery. The protesters demanded that the mine should be shut down until court conditions were fulfilled. Police were present, but the protest remained peaceful .
In retaliation to the protest, on April 3 2019, Tshabalala along with 22 other villagers was subjected to strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) (a lawsuit intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics), accusing them of intimidation and assault of an Ikwezi mine manager . SLAPP suits serve to frustrate activists, burdening them with court proceedings and intimidating them with court appearances to discourage them from standing up against injustices . Not only did the mine have strong witnesses in its favor, but community members were also intimidated into silence against testifying for Tshabalalala.
Tshabalala and three other locals were also given court orders mandating that they would be arrested if they came anywhere near the mine. However, on July 22, all charges against Tshabalala and the other protesters were withdrawn, marking a huge victory for all environmental activists as well as the community, who demonstrated on the day of the trial [1, 10]. According to WoMin, “The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) failed to present themselves at the court case, and it became increasingly clear via interviews with employees from DMR that Tshabalala had not assaulted or intimidate anyone and the accusations were false” .
At the beginning of March 2020, Corruption Watch pledged to assist the Dannhauser community and held a three-day series of meetings for locals to voice their frustrations with Ikwezi Mine, such as corruption and bribery, no efforts to improve local infrastructure or provide amenities and jobs, there being no communication from the government or the mine to the affected people, as well as police acting as agents of the mine restricting the community’s ability to communicate with mine representatives. Community members also said police attacked them whenever they tried to send a memorandum to the mine . “One of the main issues is that the community is not benefiting in any way from the mine. It’s also not a nice thing to have black dust from the coal, and noise and dust from trucks passing by your gate every day. The department needs to investigate this mine and its operation,” said Shabalala at the meetings . In response, Ikwezi Mining chief operating officer Freddie Strydom said they were aware of the community’s complaints as they had been raised in a memorandum submitted by a group of protesters on February 18, 2020. Strydom said there were four families who lived near the mine, who had been engaged with and who were currently in a consultation process . Yet currently, the mine is still operating, and nothing has been resolved .