Waterberg’s booms and busts

LEPHALALE — A report about the boom and bust in the Waterberg – A history of coal mega projects, was published by groundWork and launched at the Palm Park Hotel on Wednesday 13 March.

David Hallowes, Makoma Lekalakala and Victor Munnik

Authors of the book, Victor Munnik and David Hallowes (groundWork researchers), did the first ever “deep dive” into the political ecology of the Waterberg.

The report looks at two boom cycles in the Waterberg. The first was the original construction of the Grootegeluk Mine combined with the Matimba Power Station. The second boom was the major expansion of Grootegeluk, to create one of the largest open cast mines in the world and the construction of Medupi Power Station.

After the first boom there was an interval of 16 years before the second boom.

The Grootegeluk Mine Expansion was completed in 2014, but Medupi is still battling for completion.

A third boom, according to the authors of the book, exists mostly as “speculative plans, scenarios and hype”.

Some of the boom three mega projects have already been cancelled, including Sasol’s Mafutha coal-to-liquid projects. Sasol made it clear that they do not plan to go ahead with any future developments in the Waterberg.

Makoma Lekalakala, director of Earthlife Africa, a South African environmental and anti-nuclear organisation founded in Johannesburg in August 1988, said in her opening remarks that the Waterberg is one of the areas that was left for eco-tourism in South Africa.

“The construction of Medupi has not only broken Eskom and the economy; it also has a devastating impact on local communities, the environment and even on the local economy of Lephalale. The construction boom brought in a flood of money, a fast-rising tide that sank more boats than what it lifted. The tide is now going out and it’s leaving the town stranded in debris of broken promises and false hopes. This is something that we can give testimony to, especially those who are here.

“The coal boom has an impact on our economy, our politics and even on the lives of those who are living here.

“The life after coal campaign that started due to the threat of climate change, is a partnership between groundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights.

“An IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientist actually said that the burning of coal is the main reason for climate change. We must push back coal and focus on the alternatives which are there.

“Everyone has a right to live in a healthy environment. Earthlife and groundWork work together on environmental justice,” she said.

The report looks at two boom cycles in the Waterberg. The first was the original construction of the Grootegeluk Mine combined with the Matimba Power Station. The second boom was the major expansion of Grootegeluk, to create one of the largest open cast mines in the world and the construction of Medupi Power Station.

After the first boom there was an interval of 16 years before the second boom.
The Grootegeluk Mine Expansion was completed in 2014, but Medupi is still battling for completion.
A third boom, according to the authors of the book, exists mostly as “speculative plans, scenarios and hype”.

Some of the boom three mega projects have already been cancelled, including Sasol’s Mafutha coal-to-liquid projects. Sasol made it clear that they do not plan to go ahead with any future developments in the Waterberg.

Makoma Lekalakala, director of Earthlife Africa, a South African environmental and anti-nuclear organisation founded in Johannesburg in August 1988, said in her opening remarks that the Waterberg is one of the areas that was left for eco-tourism in South Africa.

“The construction of Medupi has not only broken Eskom and the economy; it also has a devastating impact on local communities, the environment and even on the local economy of Lephalale. The construction boom brought in a flood of money, a fast-rising tide that sank more boats than what it lifted. The tide is now going out and it’s leaving the town stranded in debris of broken promises and false hopes. This is something that we can give testimony to, especially those who are here.

“The coal boom has an impact on our economy, our politics and even on the lives of those who are living here.

“The life after coal campaign that started due to the threat of climate change, is a partnership between groundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights.

“An IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientist actually said that the burning of coal is the main reason for climate change. We must push back coal and focus on the alternatives which are there.

“Everyone has a right to live in a healthy environment. Earthlife and groundWork work together on environmental justice,” she said.

Munnik, who grew up in Ellisras (now Lephalale) said that he looked into the politics of Lephalale and surroundings and how it influenced the people and the environment during his research.

“Some of the discoveries that I made were quite surprising and very sad.

“The Waterberg has a very rich archaeological history. The reason why we have put this book together and why we are talking about coal projects, is the coal and geological deposit.
“The coal wasn’t visible at first, it was discovered around 1920 when the Union of South Africa wanted to support farmers in this area in South Africa and they started drilling boreholes and discovered coal.

“In the 1970’s when there was a lot of international resistance, the steel producer Iscor was worried that it would not be able to get enough coal and thus Grootegeluk Coal Mine started. Some of the coal had to be sold in order to make the mine economically viable and that is where Eskom came into the picture.

“Eskom and Iscor used their own land for the township Marapong, but the long-term effect was that it was built right in the middle of the pollution zone and left a permanent legacy.
The first boom came with Grootegeluk, Marapong, Onverwacht, Matimba and after that, things calmed down a bit until the second boom – Medupi and the Grootegeluk Expansion Project.

Hollowes said they interviewed people who worked both on the Matimba and Medupi projects, and by comparison, Matimba was well organised and the deadlines were met, unlike Medupi that is badly organised and ill disciplined.

“They both share characteristics of being mega projects that have a large impact on the national economy. Matimba was one of five power stations built at the time – a huge expense.

“People were complaining of Eskom overcharging from the mid 70’s but they still had to borrow internationally for equipment, especially German engineering.

“With Medupi there was hope to grow the local economy and the dream of a democratic city being developed, but one of the characteristics of the mega project is that it landed locally but the idea is originated from outside Lephalale.

“Both Medupi and the Grootegeluk Expansion, were supported by the World Bank but there was a dispute whether the World Bank should loan the money for the coal projects as there were already talks of climate change in 1998.

“The idea of using the boom as a way to joining the town suburbs didn’t quite happen. The Altoostyd suburb never realised. The road that was supposed to connect Marapong with Onverwacht also didn’t happen, leaving Marapong as a fragmented area. The idea of a permanent growth of population was not enough to justify Altoostyd. “The huge influx of people that came to Lephalale with the construction of Medupi and Grootegeluk Expansion is going to leave the Lephalale Municipality with several headaches.

“There are various stats about the amount of people working at Medupi during its prime, but it’s estimated to be between 22 000 and 24 000.

“As we all know, the Grootegeluk Expansion was completed on time but Medupi was not. The demobilization is well underway and during December 2018 there were supposed to be only 7 000 employees still working at Medupi.

“However, people are hanging around in the hope that a third boom is going to happen. The promise of boom three is keeping people in town. Unemployment in Lephalale in 2001 was 18% and in 2011, at the height of Medupi, according to stats, there was 22% unemployment. Thus, the boom didn’t reduce unemployment but it increased it due to the severe influx.

“With the bust there is going to be a massive increase in unemployment and with that comes drug dealing and other criminal activities.

“If all of Matimba and Medupi’s units were to be working, Lephalale would be a bigger emitter of Carbon dioxide (CO2) than about 75% of the countries in the world,” said Hallowes.

Claris Dreyer, coal expert, said Medupi has larger emissions due to the large amount of coal required to run the 4 800 MW power station – it is just a straight-line calculation.

Munnik said the reason why this is happening and why we are looking at coal so critically is because coal is a major cause of climate change.

“Climate change’s effects are underestimated in the official circles of SA. We have to urgently move away from coal. Developing new coal projects makes no sense as it endangers us all.

“All over the world and locally there are activists who stand up and say we need to change. We need to move away from coal and we need to do so quickly. This is because there is such a strong consensus over the dangers of climate change and how immediate they are. We are not only already feeling the effects, but we can predict from the figures to come that the effects are going to get very difficult for people to handle. It will not only disrupt local communities but whole states, governments and even water systems. It’s time for people to comprehend exactly how urgent it is and to understand the dirtiness of coal pollution and its dangers to people’s health, water systems and the soil,” said Munnik.

Dreyer said he’s been in the coal industry for more than 40 years.

“I am worried about the pollution – whether it is air pollution or ground pollution.  

“Unemployment must also be taken into consideration when a solution is proposed to the pollution problems. One solution is FGD (Flue-gas desulfurization) as it creates more jobs and is environmentally friendly.

“SA’s foundation was lain or many years by the mining industry, irrespective of whether it’s coal, gold or anything else, so we have a problem – we need more mines and we need jobs.

“There are many by-products that come from coal like bitumen that you find in a tar road.

“We also have other coal produced products that create everyday items like markers.

“So how do you balance these things?” asked Dreyer.

According to the authors, further developments like Temo and Namane, Resgen’s Boikarabelo, Sekoko, Thabametsi and other coal mines in town are not going to happen.

Many farms were bought but the land is empty, there is not even veld management. The farmers now have to go to other farms for their hunting businesses and areas that were pristine Bushveld are now surrounded by prospective mines. The people in Lesideng (Steenbokpan) are angry as there is no work and the mayor promised jobs but brought in outsiders.

The authors concluded by saying that these current developments and possible future developments mean for the Waterberg and its people, the environment and the burdens of “development” imposed on them, is a question that needs to be answered in a debate in which the people of the Waterberg should take the lead.

Another question remains – what is a cost-effective alternative that will create jobs and electricity.

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