Fear and Loathing in the Northern Cape

Words by Steve Pike.

Image by Khaya Pullen.

Alexander Bay, in the far Northern Cape was a thriving little town in 2001.

The area, known for wealthy alluvial diamond deposits, was a vibrant economic zone, where the state-owned Alexkor mining company was part of a mutually beneficial contract, rehabilitating land and rewarding communities for their work on the mines.

Fast forward to 2022, and this area faces catastrophic collapse. Over a period of 20 years, the slow poisonous creep of greed, and an ever-expanding web of political and corporate deceit and high level criminal manipulation, has reached like tentacles across the world.

The result? Much of the 300km coastline of this province is a forlorn wasteland, where grotesque machines clatter through a post-apocalyptic Mad Max film set, where the veld has been scoured into oblivion. This is because rehabilitation funds of hundreds of million rands were never spent. These monies, which were supposed to be held in trust, became successively diluted as the mining operations splintered into new ownership, gradually sold off down the line until there was nothing.

A deserted ruin in Alexander Bay. Image by Khaya Pullen.

A team from Protect the West Coast (PTWC) recently travelled to the Northern Cape on a fact finding tour. CEO Mike Schlebach said that the entire coast was a “moonscape” – from Alexander Bay to Hondeklipbaai, a distance of 225km. This is 75% of the entire coastline of the province.

“It is clear that land-based diamond mining has been done with zero rehabilitation and zero regard for the environment, or the communities who live there.”

Schlebach said that he was dumbfounded at the sad irony of how impoverished communities had been left to fight for the scraps left by the mining companies, while they extracted the best quality diamonds from what some say is the richest deposit in the world in the undersea terraces offshore from the Orange River Mouth.

“These communities have been totally left out of the financial equation even when they have part ownership of the land and minerals rights,” he said. “The South African government has totally reneged on its responsibilities. They have allowed a handful of unscrupulous mining executives and government officials to destroy it.”

This scarred and scoured land lies in grim testimony to uncaring mining companies who flagrantly ignored, and continue to ignore, their responsibility to rehabilitate the damaged land they create. They failed, and continue to fail, to fulfil promises of job creation and economic participation to the Nama communities.

Mounds of rubble litter the coastline. Image by Khaya Pullen.

Schlebach said that PTWC would continue to fight through legal means, and had set up a crowdfunding platform to achieve this. He called on South African citizens to support their legal team, which was faced with challenges in multiple locations.

“I find it hard to digest that government bodies tasked with protecting the environment and the people can drive through this coastal zone without intense emotional discomfort that prompts them to want to help.”

He said that the PTWC team witnessed horrific environmental damage just south of the Orange River Mouth.

Rubble dynamited from inland quarries is used to build the walls of enormous rectangular “coffer” dams that stretch into the sea. Once stabilised, the block of beach sand within the dams is dredged out and taken inland to a plant for processing.

An unrehabilitated processing plant just south of the Orange River mouth. Image by Khaya Pullen.

The problem – as if there was only one – is that the quarried material used to make the walls of these dams includes microscopic particulates high in iron and magnesium that are phytotoxic to marine fauna and flora – partly why this antiquated mining system is banned in other countries.

Scientific research shows that the resultant dead matter and sediment lift into the water column, making it thick and dark. A choking effect spreads into the entire surrounding area, which becomes brown and murky. Apart from the ecological mayhem it creates, the livelihoods of divers and fishermen are destroyed.

And when you turn your eyes inland, you will see gargantuan mounds of excess gravel from the ceaseless clank of dredging machinery. When you drive through the vlakte of the veld in the pumping southerlies of summer, plumes are scythed off these mine dumps that loom through the haze like mountains. Sand and other particles are blown into the sea and across the terrain into towns, choking life and creating further havoc on the eco-system, which stifles agricultural and tourism opportunities for indigenous communities.

Another mountain of rubble, of which there are hundreds that litter the coast and inland. Image by Eldon Van Aswegen.

The scary thing is that in varying degrees of intensity, this damage stretches all the way down to Lamberts Bay, along the coast, inland and out to sea, with yet another prospecting application recently approved that is even closer to home – over a vast area all the way from Elands Bay past Lamberts Bay and up to Clanwilliam and Vanrhynsdorp inland.

Almost the entire West Coast, with fossil fuel surveys and other applications offshore, is now one giant mining zone.

On their trip, the PTWC team also visited an abandoned mine outside Hondeklipbaai. The mine had been run by Trans Hex which, so it appeared, had failed to rehabilitate the land after they were done.

An abandoned clinic which has stood empty for years. Image by Khaya Pullen.

There is a huge crater used to extract diamonds ringed by giant mounds of sand. An old clinic stands empty, while a tanker once used to fill trucks has been left to rust away. The team even found old dusty records dating back to 2000 that had been discarded and left.

A rusting tanker left to rot away. Image by Khaya Pullen

This is just one of numerous unrehabilitated mines that litter the Northern Cape. These ghost mines are heading south as more applications pour in, with scant regard for correct procedures around Environmental Impact Assessments and public participation.

A modern human in 2022 would stand and scratch their heads and say: How is this possible?

The story of the Northern Cape is a story of corruption and capture that begins in 2001, when the Richtersveld Community (RVC) lodged a claim for land restitution in the area around Alexander Bay. The claim was rejected by the Land Claims Court.

However, human rights lawyer Henk Smith, acting for the RVC, appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal. In March 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the 3000-strong Richtersveld community.

In the settlement with Alexkor, portions of land would be transferred to the community. The land mining rights of Alexkor would be transferred to the community in the form of a Pooling and Sharing Joint Venture (PSJV) that would be set up.

Alexkor would pay R200 million, via capitalization from the State. The mariculture and agriculture assets of Alexkor would also be transferred to the community. A sum of R190 million would be paid as reparation over three years to the Investment Holding Company of the PSJV. There would be a R50 million development grant, and R45 million would be paid as compensation for Alexkor’s occupation on transferred residential properties over ten years.

A township would be established at Alexander Bay and environmental rehabilitation would be enforced. Alexkor would retain the marine mining rights, but these would be under the control of the Joint Board of the PSJV, as would the land mining rights of the Richtersveld Mining Company representing the community, who would hold the terrestrial rights in a 51% to 49% equity split in their favour.

To cut a long story short, due to direct manipulation of members of the Communal Property Association (CPA) of the Richtersveld community by mining companies, who are alleged to have captured the CPA, this equity split was inexplicably reversed and the community found itself the junior partner in the partnership.

This is the context to the current state of affairs in the Northern Cape.

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