Scramble for Resources: The Mining Time Bomb

A July Arts Month Focus at The Journalist

The riches that lie buried beneath the soil, the bounty of the oceans and our countless other resources are a blessing and a curse. Throughout history there have been powers eager to grab as much as they can while giving back as little as possible. In recent times the tensions in the mining industry exploded into the Marikana tragedy. This week at the Durban Film Festival a documentary that is making waves internationally brings it down to a standoff between two cousins and the titanium of the pristine Wild Coast.

Two cousins, one proposed mining project on tribal land and a battle of epic proportions. That’s the story of The Shore Break, a landmark film by Producers Ryley Grunenwald and Odette Geldenhuys.

In the Amadiba area, on South Africa’s stunning Wild Coast, the Pondo people have tended their traditional way of life for centuries. Nonhle, a young local eco-tour guide, is a staunch supporter of her people and the endangered environment on which their livelihood and culture depend.

Her cousin Madiba, a local entrepreneur and self-proclaimed moderniser, is fully supportive of a titanium mining proposal and the government’s controversial plan to build a highway across their tribal ground. Tired of his community living without good access to employment, hospitals and schools, Madiba uses every backhanded method imaginable, scurrilously courting private capital and questionable government officials. While the South African President deposes the pro-environment Pondo Royal Family, Nonhle rallies inspiring support with little more than dogged determination.

Featuring arresting cinematography, beautiful sand animation and sensational original music, The Shore Break delivers both a visually and emotionally riveting fight to the finish.

A review in the prestigious industry magazine Variety, states:

The Shore Break offers an absorbing microcosm of the clash between tradition and ‘progress’ when there are resources to be plundered. It’s a story that is being enacted in every corner of the globe, and there’s something heartening about the fact that Nonhle’s fellow villagers aren’t so unsophisticated that they don’t grasp how little long-term benefit they’re likely to get in sacrificing their way of life for short-term cash.

“Polished assembly is highlighted by the helmer’s own lensing, which captures the often spectacular coastal scenery to alluring effect. Diversifying the package’s aesthetic are interludes of sand animation by Justine Puren-Calverley, and a number of soundtracked original Afro-pop songs by Ntombethongo.”

Meanwhile there are a range of activists and organisations assisting communities nationwide to know their rights.

Writing in GroundUp Christopher Rutledge says mining communities are “ready to explode”. Rutledge is the Mining and extractives Coordinator for ActionAid South Africa and the Convenor of the Coalition on the Minerals Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). He states:

“Phakisa, from the Sesotho word meaning “hurry up”, has been touted by government as the silver bullet that would ‘fast track the implementation of solutions on critical development issues.’

“But for Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA), representing 100 communities through 70 affiliated organisations, Operation Phakisa is just ‘a fast tracking of the killings of our people and continued environmental destruction as it puts profit before the people.’ MACUA says the plan should be scrapped ‘because it keeps on feeding the excruciating pain felt by communities who bear the negative repercussions of mining every single day.’

“In a meeting held between the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME), MACUA and ActionAid South Africa (AASA) recently, to consider how communities could participate in the Phakisa project, the DPME reiterated that the process was aimed at bringing together an ‘alliance of the willing’ to focus on the ‘implementation’ of ‘confident projects,’ that were ‘constructive, pragmatic and viable.’

“To their credit, the Phakisa planning team admitted that they were faced with a tough challenge because of historical antagonisms and intractable policy differences between key stakeholders. They were however at pains to emphasise that the Phakisa process was not about policy but about processes and implementation.”

Also in GroundUp, Tracey Davies reports that recently the Traditional Healers Organisation laid criminal charges against mining company Aquila Steel SA (Pty) Ltd and three of its directors for illegally causing extensive damage to one of South Africa’s most sacred cultural sites. Davies is an attorney with the Centre for Environmental Rights. She writes:

She alleges that “Aquila Steel desecrated the site near Thabazimbi in breach of the conditions of its prospecting rights and of a number of environmental and water laws.”

“This is far from the only case in South Africa where a prospecting or mining right has been granted, or is being considered by the Department of Mineral Resources, in a place of significant cultural, ecological, historic or tourism value. With the number of prospecting and mining rights being awarded in such places continually on the rise, mining poses a growing threat to our ecological and cultural heritage.

“In 2007 and 2008 Aquila Steel, at that time the South African subsidiary of then Australian-listed Aquila Resources Limited, obtained prospecting rights for iron ore on two properties near Thabazimbi in Limpopo. The ‘Madimatle’ Mountain and Gatkop caves, sites of significant cultural, spiritual and historic value, are situated on these properties.

“In breach of its prospecting rights, and without the required environmental authorisation, Aquila Steel cleared over 33km of roads all over the Madimatle Mountain, and drilled in approximately 200 locations, illegally clearing vegetation and protected tree species. The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the provincial environmental authorities took no steps to stop Aquila Steel’s activities, and have not ordered the company to rectify the damage. Instead, the DMR is considering Aquila Steel’s application for a mining right, which, if granted, would effectively permit the company to remove the mountain top.”

In developing countries the choices between exploitation of natural resources versus sustainable use are not always easy. And then in a mineral rich country such as ours, maintaining a healthy debate becomes clouded with so many issues… many people lose heart and lose interest.

It’s never a simple trade-off between uplifting communities or preserving our ecological and cultural heritage. The stakes are high and the potential for corruption increases as the prospective profit margins escalate.

In The Shore Break film there are no easy answers. Just a community living in pristine natural beauty, torn apart by fighting and poverty. And somewhere in the background one of the many fingers points at the Presidency.