Views from the ground

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A retrenched coal miner from eMalahleni, a community environmental activist in eMalahleni and two Mpumalanga trade unionists share their concerns over mine and power station closures and point out challenges.

For coal miners that have lost jobs when their mine closes, there is very often fear and hopelessness. TIPS, GroundWork and NALEDI (funded by UK PACT) are involved with a project in Mpumalanga (eMalahleni and Steve Tshwete municipalities) to “co-develop a coherent just transition plan that is inclusive of communities that will be affected by the transition”. On August 28 2021, they organised an online dialogue to probe what mining closures mean for workers and those in the surrounding community.

In this extract from the dialogue, Thembisile Mbethe from the Vukani environmental justice movement in action (VEM) and Sicelo Masina, a retrenched coal miner, both livingin the same township, as well as two trade union officials from affected trade unions, Sipho Dhlamini, CEPPWAWU acting Mpumalanga provincial secretary, and Jabu Khambule, regional educator, NUM Highveld region, talk about the problems of mine and power station closures and the process of a Just Transition.

Thembisile Mbethe, Vukani environmental justice movement in action (VEM)

We feel that there is a gap between the residents and the workers when it comes to the matter of just transition. When we talk about just transition, we normally raise awareness and teach people about what just transition is, especially when it comes to miners that work with coal. Miners that work for coal-fired power stations feel that we are destroying their job opportunities and this is how we are seen in the community. They don’t understand us because they think that when we talk about transition, we are destroying work opportunities for them. Coal miners don’t know and don’t understand what just transition is because nothing is being done to educate them about it.

We as the community of eMalahleni feel the heat brought on by the legacy of coal because it’s expensive for us, we can’t afford it and it pollutes our water. Our water is polluted and makes us sick and it’s hard to find and we often don’t have water at all.

We feel the pain that is caused by the production of coal in eMalahleni and the respiratory illnesses it causes the community of eMalahleni; we are in and out of hospitals where we don’t get help. Our clinics don’t have the necessary medication and we are being constantly referred and we aren’t getting the help we need. The workers that work with coal are also sick with the same illnesses we are complaining about as the community; it’s just that people feel like there is no life without coal, they don’t understand that just transition has everything, job opportunities and health.

What we see are job opportunities in other sectors like agriculture, if we can rehabilitate the land, we can do something with that land that is destroyed. If we can rehabilitate mines, we can create something greener in that space where coal was being mined.

Sicelo Masina, retrenched coal miner from Optimum Colliery, Pullenshoop, now unemployed

“We were working [at Optimum], we had a good life mining coal, our family were happy. [Now] I feel like crying,” Sicelo Masina, retrenched coal miner.

I feel like crying, when it comes to Optimum, I feel like there’s a lot which we don’t know. Currently we have one problem. We were working there, we had a good life, mining coal, our family were happy. Currently the closure affected a lot of people. We used to have house helpers and all those things, we had to retrench as well as the mine closed.

When you have a child at Laërskool immediately when they close Optimum I must remove the child to a public school; you wanted your child to get that education from Hoërskool, but at the end you must move your child because you won’t afford to pay fees, you must change your diet.

Even now Eskom, we used to work there, it’s shut down now, now you must go back, stay at home. What about the 6 months you sitting at home? Now I don’t know what to do, that’s why I end up joining Thomas from Groundwork.

Eskom and Optimum make Pullenshoop a good town. Maybe the guy from NUM I believe maybe he is aware and he can assist me. Optimum and the mine closure is a problem. Now Pullenshoop is starting to be a ghost town; people standing at the shop, nothing to do. Don’t know what’s going to happen to Pullenshoop..

Maybe they can open up a mine, try to work with them. I do my own research, Optimum is the heart of Pullenshoop, Hendrina, even Middelburg.

Sipho Dhlamini, Ceppwawu, acting provincial secretary

“The whole issue of closing mines because of this air pollution; there was no retraining or reskilling of our employees if they are losing jobs, now we are starting to think of reskilling of everything but there is huge damage. That is the problem with us, we are so good in just talking, we are so bad in action that’s why we are here today engaging, trying to find a solution.” Sipho Dhlamini, CEPPWAWU

The unemployment rate is at 34.4 per cent. I don’t think the idea of closing coal mines should have started before they had done research to see how unemployment was going to be affected; people around the coal mines, the unionists. But this closure has happened. We have families who have lost their jobs and the unemployment is very high. From us as CEPPWAWU, we don’t agree about the closing of mines in terms of coal, the air pollution. There is air pollution – there are tons and tons of coal going overseas but we are being told that coal is making a lot of damage. Why are we not improving the system? There are engineers. 

Closure is going to change a lot of things. This is painful, especially for NUM and those unions who are affected; we need to engage thoroughly; this thing is going to affect a lot of things in the mining industry.

The whole issue of closing mines because of this air pollution; there was no retraining or reskilling of our employees if they are losing jobs, now we are starting to think of reskilling of everything but there is huge damage. That is the problem with us, we are so good in just talking, we are so bad in action that’s why we are here today engaging, trying to find a solution.

Jabu Khambule, regional educator, Highveld, NUM

“Delmas is a mining community. One ward, Ward 7, has 22 mines within the very same ward, each mine employs approximately 600. That’s 13 200 workers in one ward.” Jabu Khambule, regional educator, NUM Highveld

50 per cent of the youth are unemployed; 73 per cent of youth don’t have matric. Two mines have been closed because they lost the contract from Eskom. They each employed 500 employees; 95 per cent of those employees are black. The mine is between Delmas and Witbank. The taxi industry and transportation of coal were all affected because the contract was lost. This has a very bad impact on livelihoods of industrial employees.

Delmas is a mining community. One ward, Ward 7, has 22 mines within the very same ward, each mine employs approximately 600. That’s 13 200 workers in one ward. These are those employed in those mines. Delmas is dependent on farming and coal. Coal mining employs 90 per cent of the people in one ward. If one man is feeding 10 family members, that’s 132 000 people.

We’re not saying we must not invest in green economy. We’re not saying let it be a total phase out from coal mining to low-carbon economy but let’s address the current situation that we are facing now, 73 per cent of youth no matric. If we can manage because there are systems in place, negotiations, before we stop a mine, there will be a closure, but those are just agreements that are not being fulfilled. Many companies when they retrench don’t agree to go to reskilling of workers, the Act is saying it’s voluntary, we have agreements with DMRE but they are not followed so it will take us some years before we address the issue of skills, education and so on.

One mine that is not having a contract with Eskom is affecting the entire economy – transport, people selling food, accommodation industry – everyone is going to be affected.

I concur with Sipho. We know that we must engage and not reject but the issue of skilling and investing in technology so that we can produce a clean economy must also be addressed. How can the country have a youth that 73 per cent don’t have matric. There are many sectors outside that, when you look at MP it’s a province that grows crops, bananas, maize, veggies and so on that can be the same but is that sector going to sustain the standard of living when you close mines? The impact of closing the mines is going to be huge on members and family members.

Response from Thembisile Mbethe

Concerning Sipho Dlamini’s comment. He says that the challenge they are facing is that the workers need to be reskilled. Yes, it’s true and I am grateful that he knows that. So, we feel that there is a miscommunication or a communication breakdown between the union and the mineworkers because the mineworkers don’t seem to have information with regards to JET (Just Energy Transition).

So, there is information that the unions are keeping from the workers because if they were given that information then the workers wouldn’t be fighting with us on the ground. We don’t feel safe anymore on the ground regarding JET because they say we are taking work opportunities away from them. We feel that they are not telling them the truth, coal will eventually come to an end, they can run away from that but that’s where we are headed.

It’s important the mines are sealed so that we can continue with our lives. It’s important that they tell them, ‘guys there is something coming and we want to prepare you for it and not keep the truth from you’. They know the truth, but they are not explaining it to them.

Response from Sicelo Masina, retrenched coal-miner

I feel ashamed of the unions, I can hear they are talking about saving the mines and unemployment and stuff. I can see that the unions are failing the people, failing the mines, failing everything. And at the end they will come and say – No, we are still on a process. Now we are left without work, without everything because of the unions.

We are struggling and as much as we are struggling there is talk that after the mines, after coal what is going to happen? The comrade is saying that we can talk about skills, if you can take me now and say, ‘Okay Sicelo we are going to a certain class to train you.’ But as much as that process continues the way that it is, unions please let’s comply.

Sisi Thembi is saying that they [the unions] are keeping things from us that they obliged to tell us at the mines. They know and they have had the information for a long time, but they are hiding it because they are benefiting on the side, comrades please let’s be transparent.

Response from Sipho Dhlamini, Ceppwawu, acting provincial secretary

I don’t want Sicelo to have the understanding that the union is so bad. The unions are not so bad. We didn’t know anything, we cannot hide anything from our own members, we cannot hide from our brothers. We cannot do that.

The person you should blame is rather blame your government, you have put a white monopoly capitalist there, you can blame that one there, not the union, we have been fighting for so long, I don’t want you to go with that perception.

You can watch the entire discussion, including inputs from the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI), the Steve Tshwete municipality, Middelburg Chamber of Commerce and other parties on You Tube: https://youtu.be/iF66K41MmC8

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Trade unionists and community activist
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