WATCH: ‘Devastating human cost when mines close down’

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“When I arrived at the gate‚ it was locked. My supervisor told me I must sit at home because the mine is going to be liquidated and they will tell us what will happen next‚ but since then‚ we have just been sitting at home.”

These are the words of Obakeng Cecilia Nkomo‚ a former employee of the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine near Carletonville in Gauteng‚ which ceased operations four years ago. She was interviewed late last year‚ for research commissioned by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Lawyers for Human Rights. A report on their findings and recommendations was released on Friday.

Today‚ the village of some 6‚000 people exists on the edge of the defunct mine – in extreme poverty.

“We are just living in Blyvoor‚ there are no jobs here. I’ve tried to get a job but I am told that I am too old‚” said village resident Elizabeth Magrietha Jansen.

For over seven decades‚ the mine operated as one of the world’s largest and most profitable mining concerns. A village grew up around this operation‚ incorporating a community of mine employees‚ their families‚ schools‚ health clinics‚ churches‚ playgrounds and meeting spaces. As in many mining towns in South Africa‚ the researchers noted that the mine provided access to all basic services‚ including water‚ sanitation‚ rubbish collection‚ and security‚ despite this theoretically being the legal responsibility of the State.

In August 2013‚ however‚ the mine initiated insolvency proceedings. Overnight‚ operations stopped and thousands lost their jobs.

In March 2014‚ electricity to the mine’s Shaft 5 was terminated. The shaft flooded and acid water has continued to collect in the interim‚ leading to “a significant risk of water and soil pollution”‚ the report states. Other environmental mitigation measures on the mine‚ such as dust suppression at the tailings storage facilities‚ ceased when liquidation proceedings started and have never been re-initiated; The report by the two human rights organisations said this has resulted in significant health risks to the residents and damage to the surrounding environment.

Rubbish collection has halted and garbage has piled up around the village‚ according to the report. Local infrastructure‚ including the sewage system‚ is breaking down “for lack of maintenance”. And residents face uncertainty over whether they will be able to remain in their homes‚ as these are the technical property of the BGMC (in liquidation) estate.

“Grinding poverty is rampant‚” the report states‚ as the mine was the primary employer and economic driver in the immediate area.

Before its closure‚ nearly 70% of survey respondents reported earning over R4‚000 per month; today‚ nearly half of all respondents reported monthly incomes of less than R2‚000‚ with most relying on informal piece work and/or hand-outs to survive. A full 75% of respondents reported being unemployed today. A similar percentage reported their fruitless search for employment since the closure of the mine.

Close to 60% of them reported not having enough money to buy food.

Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated that the only education or qualification they currently have is a mine-related certification; only 15% of those interviewed stated that they also matriculated from high school.

“The unfolding disaster for the village residents also provides a stark warning of the potential fate for many of South Africa’s mining communities‚ where dozens of mature mines are approaching the end of their lives‚” the FIDH and LHR report states.

“Without acting on the lessons learned‚ there is a growing danger that many thousands more will face the same bleak future.

“More broadly‚ the story of the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine is an urgent warning to mining-based economies across the continent.”

The FIDH and LHR are highly critical of both corporate and government South Africa.

“The catastrophe at Blyvooruitzicht is the result of a toxic cocktail involving private sector abdication of responsibility‚ inadequate implementation of the existing legislative framework and lack of anticipation of the severity of the impacts of a sudden liquidation of a major mining operation‚” said Michael Clements‚ lawyer and head of the Environmental Rights Programme at LHR.

The report states: “Regardless of any potential new buyers for the insolvent mine’s assets‚ this cannot prevent the State from complying with its obligations to respect‚ fulfill and protect human rights‚ including protecting against violations by private actors. Corporate actors must similarly respect their responsibility to respect human rights even in the context of insolvency and a cessation of mining activities.”

It recommends: legislative amendment‚ improved enforcement‚ the “capacitation of relevant government spheres and departments”‚ and the incorporation of mining communities into the fabric of local municipalities and mainstream service provision so as to avoid recurrence of such situations on a much broader scale.

“This is particularly critical as the South African mining industry enters its twilight years and the risks detailed in this report become relevant to a far greater number of communities.”

The Merafong City Local Municipality and local policing authorities are enjoined to:

  • Formally proclaim the village as a township to facilitate funding of housing development.
  • Seek funding through specialised national housing programmes.
  • Ensure access to information and adequate alternative housing for village residents if township proclamation is not a possibility.
  • Consider establishment of a satellite police station in the village‚ and assist the community in addressing crime related to informal mining syndicates in the area.

* See the full report here.

 



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