There is no ceasefire in the war against the poor and working people during the lockdown
Bench Marks Foundation Media Release
The COVID-19 pandemic and the South African lockdown has revealed not only the best of our human emotions but also persistent cases of the war against the poor and working people. We will highlight only a few, but we point out that we are busy with other civil society groups campaigning for the allocation of much needed food, water and sanitation support to those in most need. We join with others to call for persuasion and not brute force in obtaining compliance at this time where our total humanity is challenged. The structural and systemic concentration of the poor and working people was always a powder keg. Now it is a time for compassionate public servants collaborating with citizen volunteers, social movements and people’s organisations, non-governmental organisations and unions to chart a way out of the crisis.
Here under we list a few of the concerns addressed to the authorities and the public. These involve the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), of Environmental Affairs, of Water and Sanitation, as well as the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) as we discuss below:
- DMRE: a flawed and anti-democratic consultative process
The attempts by the Ministry and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to rush through amendments to the MPRDA within a 30 day period. The deadline for this was 26 March 2020. Since we are in the 21-day lockdown period, it is impossible to effectively obtain mandates from the mining impacted communities. The prohibition on gatherings and travel for “non-essential reasons” limits consultations under these circumstances, as it prevents community based organisations and their civil society partners from engaging meaningfully with the amendments. Hence to keep the original deadline is tantamount to an eviction from these processes. It is not only anti-democratic and unjust, but also goes against the spirit of the solidarity that the president and our government has called for and that we generally support.
- The issuing of mining licences reflects a business as usual approach!
The Foundation is also concerned about the issuing of new mining permits during the lockdown period. We are of the opinion that there should be a freeze on all licences until after the State of Disaster has been lifted and mine affected and impacted communities can participate in the procedures and processes described in the MPRDA regarding community consultation and participation. If this is not done, any licences issued during this period will have undermined democratic process.
- Ministry and Department of Environmental Affairs: Hot Air but Little Solidarity
Together with a host of other progressive CSOs, the Bench Marks Foundation is concerned that, instead of using this time of the lockdown to continue to clean up South Africa, our government has done the contrary. Just four days after the president announced the regulations for a national lockdown to fight corona virus, the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries gazetted sulphur dioxide (S02) air pollution standards (called minimum emission standards, or MES) that are twice as weak as the previous standards.
Instead of Eskom, Sasol, and other facilities with coal boilers, having to meet the original SO2 standard of 500 mg/Nm3, they will now only be required to comply with MES doubly as weak (1000 mg/Nm3). The new limit applies either from 1 April 2020, or by the delayed dates that these companies have already been given by the National Air Quality Officer.
This has further opened up the vulnerabilities of poor and working people already compromised by the ills caused by mining. The research undertaken by Life After Coal – led by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights – has shown that 3,300 premature deaths would be caused by doubling the SO2 standard just for Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, as a result of increased risk of lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke, and increased risk of death from diabetes. The Bench Marks Foundation asks why this is necessary if the government claims that it is a compassionate government and calling us all to be there for the other at this time. We ask: why NOW? And who benefits?
- Department of Environmental Affairs: erroneous judgement at the time of COVID-19
During April, we learned with dismay that the minister has rejected most of appeals made by communities and activist groups for no further beach mining to take place at the Tormin mine on the West Coast north of the Olifants River. Minister Creecy has effectively given the go-ahead to mining. Mining in these sensitive areas is a slippery slope and will not help the country contribute towards creating ecologically sustainable development. We join the Centre for Environmental Rights in warning that the errors of judgement of the Minister, at this time will undermine not only the terrestrial biodiversity but also our democracy as we know it.
- Ministry and Department of Water and Sanitation and Minerals Council South Africa
We have learned that the DWS is working to meet the historic shortage of adequate water supplies to poor and working communities, as part of the battle against COVID-19. It has been reported that over 41 000 water tanks have been delivered. Mining impacted communities regularly suffer from good quality water supplies, often to benefit of water guzzling mines and industry. We call on the polluters of our water and environmental resources to foot the bill, under the auspices of the Department of Health and DWS for the provision of the water supplies. These must reach the people most in need and we urge the authorities to work with the legitimate representatives of the communities, including voluntary associations, NGOs and unions.
- Mine Health and Safety Council: to include near mining communities in their coverage
Finally, it would appear that the government does not take seriously its climate change commitments made to citizens and the international community. Climate change is real, and granting licences and ignoring the air quality standards is not the way to go.
On the other hand, we must commend the minister of Mineral Resources’ unannounced inspections of mines to determine the adherence of mining operations to the COVID-19 decrees. We call on the Minister to insist that mine clinics, hospitals and health facilities open to near mine communities and public in general on “living out allowance” and thus, staying in informal settlements and townships where they work.
Whilst we are at it, we are aware that the Mine Health and Safety Council is mandated to ensure transformation of occupational health and safety in the mining industry, working towards “the achievement of Zero Harm to mine workers and mining communities”. Yet in its structures, work programmes and practices, it has ignored ensuring zero harm to mining communities as result of mining activities. This is the time to set this right, as it will mark a real and programmatic turn towards tackling the chronic illnesses that have engulfed communities living around mines. We offer our good offices as well as that of the many mining communities we work with, towards making our participation in the decision-making in the MHSC a reality.
Issued by the Bench Marks Foundation
For additional information contact:
David Van Wyk + 27 82 652 5061
Hassen Lorgat + 27 82 362 6180
For the editors
Life after Coal
Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle is a joint campaign by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, groundWork, and the Centre for Environmental Rights. We aim to: discourage the development of new coal-fired power stations and mines; reduce emissions from existing coal infrastructure and encourage a coal phase-out; and enable a just transition to sustainable energy systems for the people.
Mine Health and Safety Council
It states it vision as: To be the knowledge leader and trusted advisor to the Minister of Mineral Resources and stakeholders on occupational health and safety matters, and to promote the transformation of occupational health and safety in the mining industry towards the achievement of Zero Harm to mine workers and mining communities.