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Somkhele coal mine owned by Tendele, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


The open cast coal mine in Somkhele has been operating since 2007 in the uMkhanyakude District (one of the 11 districts of the KwaZulu-Natal Province). This district is known for its lack of hydraulic resources and its poor delivery services of water and sanitation. This situation is worse in the Mtubatuba area because the Somkhele mine uses underground water to wash the coal, increasing the area’s water scarcity. The Somkhele open cast coal mine is only 10 kilometers upstream from Mtubatuba on the  Mfolozi river as well as the proposed Fuleni mine (see case on the EJAtlas) opposed by locals. The mine operated without a water use license until August 2014. It was therefore violating national mining and water use laws during its first 8 years. Numerous communities of the uMkhanyakude District suffer water shortages, whereas the Department of Water Affairs removed five water tankers by the beginning of 2016 with no explanation. Early in 2016, the kwaMsani township was left without water for weeks.  Residents had to either travel more than 2 kilometers to collect water from a communal water tap or to buy it from private dealers, including smugglers selling illegal water from the dry Mfolozi river.

In the drought-stricken communities, women are especially impacted because they are the ones whose social role is to ensure that the families have sufficient potable water. Since water is scarce, they have to travel further distances to find water sources, disrupting their days and leaving less time for other activities. With the support of WoMin, a Women’s Water Assembly was organized in August 2016 in Embonambi. Women from Somkhele and Fuleni reported the water scarcity and pollution that threatened their families’ health, their cattle, and farming productivity. The gathering was envisioned as a space to share experiences and to build alliances and solidarity between the communities carrying the burden of coal extractivism.

The local inhabitants demand the closure of the mine, whose life expectancy is at least 15 years. By June 2016, the South African Human Rights Commission held several hearings denouncing many human rights abuses and environmental injustices on behalf of Tendele’s mine. In November 2016, the Mpukunyoni Community Property Association blocked access to the coal mine with trucks. By December 13th, the court order forbade the association from interfering with the mine’s operations until January 25th, 2017. Regional and national networks continue to support local efforts and mobilization. 

On November 20th, 2018, the Pietermaritzburg high court dismissed the application submitted by Global Environment Trust to halt operations in Somkhele [10].

On October 22, 2020, four hitmen shot and killed 63 year old grandmother Fikile Ntshangase in front of her young grandson in her home in Ophondweni, who had already narrowly survived a previous assassination attempt on October 15 against various community leaders still under threat. Ntshangase was the Vice-Chairperson of a sub-committee of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO). It is suspected that the killing was in retaliation for her refusal to sign an agreement with Tendele to cease MCEJO´s court challenges against Somkhele.  These court challenges were for a review of Tendele´s new mining rights to expand 222 square kilometres in Mpukunyoni, due for hearing at the high court in March 2021 [13]. At the time, Tendele was pressuring 145 families to give up their ancestral land for the expansion, subjecting them to months of violent intimidation including death threats and open fire on one family´s home. Tendele, however, alleges that the 19 households agreeing to relocate were asking for too much monetary compensation for leaving the land, with president Du Preez calling the R750,000 average payouts ¨ransom¨and ¨close to blackmail¨ [12]. Days before her assassination, Ntshangase had intended to write an affidavit exposing sub-committee members bribing her with R350,000 to sign the agreement. Police have opened a murder case investigating the incident, which has yet to be resolved [11].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Somkhele coal mine owned by Tendele, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Country:South Africa
State or province:KwaZulu-Natal Province
Location of conflict:Somkhele, Mtubatuba
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Coal extraction and processing
Specific commodities:Coal
Anthracite, a pure form of coal

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The coal mine's first plant entered into operation by 2007. Since 2013, the mine relies on three plants, being the largest mine in South Africa of metallurgical anthracite, an energy rich type of coal. For the year 2013/14, 1,1 million tonnes of coal were extracted. The coal both feeds South African national industry and it is exported. The Petmin Group claims that the mine provides jobs for hundreds of local inhabitants.

Project area:22,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/01/2010
Company names or state enterprises:Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd from South Africa - legal owners of the Somkhele mine
Petmin Group from South Africa - Tendele is a subsidary of Petmin Group
Relevant government actors:Umkhanyakude District Municipality. South African Human Rights Commission. Department of Water Affairs. Mpukunyoni Traditional Council. Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Mpukunyoni Community Property Association (MCPA).
groundWork (Friends of the Earth S.A.).
Center for Environmental Rights (CER).
Global Environmental Trust.
Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (“MCEJO”).

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Local ejos
Regional networks: WoMin
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Desertification/Drought, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Soil contamination, Mine tailing spills, Air pollution
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Other Environmental impactsmine's blasts, sick cattle from polluted water
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Accidents
Other Health impactsDiseases provoked by polluted water, health potential health risks caused by airborne pollutants.
Violent intimidation of families living on ancestral land and activists
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession
Potential: Increase in violence and crime
Other socio-economic impacts72 households have been moved from the KwaQubuka area


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Violent targeting of activists
Development of alternatives:The local impacted communities ask for the closure of the coal mine, to protect and preserve water resources for socially and ecologically sustainable livelihoods.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:No changes to improve the local communities' access to clean water and a safe environment. Land grabbing for anthracite mining by the mining company is going on.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

National Water Act (1998)

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Melissa Hansen, Bandile Mdlalose, Anti-extractivist feminist politics in KwaZulu-Natal, June 2015

[2] Maggie Hazvinei Mapondera, Our Lives Do Matter! Women Fight for Water in Somkhele and Fuleni!, August 29, 2016

[3] Tamlyn Jolly, Women unite against coal mining, Zululand Observer, January 30, 2015

[1] Mia Moorcroft, High court brings order to mine, Zululand Observer, December 18, 2016

[4] Thami Magubane, Drought-Hit Residents Forced to Buy ‘Illegal’ Water, IOL, 17/11/2016

[5] Women Stand their Ground against Big Coal Southern African Exchange, January 15, 2015

[9] Tamlyn Jolly, Potential human rights violations in Somkhele and Fuleni, June 21, 2016

[8] S.A. coal communities meet at KZN coal hotspot - National coal communities exchange organised by groundWork, 21 September 2016

[6] Somkhele Mine, Petmin official Website

[7] Tamlyn Jolly, Fed-up with living in close proximity to Somkhele mine, Mpukunyoni communities seek closure of the mine, June 3rd, 2016

[11] Mail&Guardian. Murder of anti-mining activist emboldens KZN community (Koko 2020)

[12] Daily Maverick. Violence on border of iMfolozi-Hluhluwe game park linked to fears of mass retrenchments (Kockott & Hattingh 2020)

[13] Save our Wilderness. The killing of Somkhele environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase (2020)

[10] Activists lose bid to shut down coal mine, November 21, 2018

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Faith ka-Manzi & Patrick Bond, Women from KwaZulu-Natal’s mining war zone stand their ground against big coal, EJOLT Report

Standoff between Somkhele Coal Mine, Mpukunyoni community

Meta information

Contributor:Camila Rolando Mazzuca, updated by Dalena Tran
Last update27/10/2020



Women from the drought-stricken communities of Fuleni and Somkhele

Gathering at the Women's Water Assembly in August 2016 Source:

Protest by the Mpukunyoni Community Property Association

The community association blocked the entrances to Tendele Coal Mine with trucks, December 18, 2016 Source: