A civil society coalition’s application to stop Indian-owned mining company Atha-Africa Ventures (Atha) from starting to mine coal in the Mabola Protected Environment outside Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga will kick off in the High Court in Pretoria this week.
The coalition, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, wants the court to set aside the decisions of former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane and the late minister of environmental affairs Edna Molewa to permit Atha to mine in the protected area.
They also want the matter referred back for reconsideration and the final decision on the proposed mine to be put on hold until after the outcome of internal appeals and litigation pertaining to other authorisations, including environmental authorisation and the water use licence granted to Atha.
Molewa gave permission to Atha to go ahead in August 2016 while Zwane did so three months later.
The coalition maintained that neither minister conducted a public participation process or notified interested and parties that would be affected that they had received and were considering Atha’s application.
It would argue that the ministers did not take their decisions in an open and transparent manner and ignored the requirement of the Protected Areas Act that mining only be allowed in such an environment in exceptional circumstances.
It said the ministers had failed to take into account the interests of local communities and South Africa’s responsibilities relating to the environment.
The coalition added that Atha had not made adequate provision to rehabilitate the mining area.
The proposed mine was not within a protected area, it would be in a strategic water source area and would, according to the coalition, threaten water security regionally as well as locally.
Mining activity would also seriously threaten the integrity of the wetlands and other habitats in the protected area, the coalition said.
The area includes three farms used for grazing for commercial livestock and was home to several subsistence farmers.
The area between Wakkerstroom and the mining area was also an internationally recognised birding site surrounded by protected areas that are major tourist attractions.
Both ministers and the Mpumalanga agriculture MEC defended the decisions as rational, reasonable and transparent.
They said they would ask the court to dismiss the application. Atha is only opposing any attempt to delay a final decision.
The government maintained that Mpumalanga and the Wakkerstroom area was economically depressed, so it was necessary to strike a balance between socioeconomic development and environmental sustainability.
The mine would benefit the region as semiskilled and unskilled labour would be sourced from local communities, it added.