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As Mpumalanga towns plot future beyond coal, workers express pain over mine closures

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As Mpumalanga towns plot future beyond coal, workers express pain over mine closures

The Komati coal-fired power station, which will be fully decommissioned in 2022
The Komati coal-fired power station, which will be fully decommissioned in 2022

27th August 2021

By: Terence Creamer
Creamer Media Editor

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The Steve Tshwete local municipality, in Mpumalanga, which is at the epicentre of South Africa’s coal industry, is revising its Local Economic Development (LED) strategy to take account of the anticipated closure of coal mines and power stations and create the framework for a more diversified economy.

LED department assistant director Michael Nkosi reports that the council recognises the need to decouple the municipality from its current reliance on coal, as well as the risk that the mining towns that fall within its borders could become ghost towns should it fail to broaden its economic scope.

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The municipal area includes towns such as Middelburg, Hendrina, Pullenshope and Komati that are intimately tied to coal, steel and Eskom power stations.

Speaking during a webinar held to explore just transition challenges and opportunities for Steve Tshwete and other Mpumalanga towns, Nkosi said initial studies had already been undertaken with the support of the German government’s GIZ development agency to explore some of the non-mining opportunities.

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These included tourism, manufacturing and agriculture, but would require a reskilling of the existing labour force, as well as a realignment of education and training in the province to support such activities.

The council, Nkosi said, was acutely aware that the livelihoods of many workers was currently threatened by the closure of mines and power stations, adding that the negative effects of the recent closure of the Optimum coal mine was still being felt not only by retrenched workers, but also by communities and the municipality itself.

During the webinar, hosted jointly by Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), the National Labour and Economic Institute (Naledi) and supported by groundwork, retrenched Optimum miner Sicelo Masina expressed deep unhappiness over the closure, which he said was turning areas such as Pullenshope into ghost towns.

Masina said he hoped that the mine could be re-opened, as its closure had left people “standing at shop corners with nothing to do” and had forced him to move his children from a fee-paying school.

Unionists on the webinar, including the National Union of Mineworkers’ Jabu Khambule and The South African Transport and Allied Workers' Sipho Dlamini, described the growing threat to the coal industry as “painful” and questioned whether sufficient planning had been undertaken to protect workers and communities.

Khambule warned that, in some areas, the coal industry employed up to 90% of those working, adding that when mines were closed it affected all other aspects of economic life, from taxis to retail.

He said that when retrenchments took place, there was a lack of follow-through from the mines and government on promised training and re-skilling and he also questioned why miners were not re-employed to rehabilitate the mines.

Emalahleni resident Thembisile Mbethe, who is also a member of the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, expressed a starkly different view, however, saying the mines and power stations imposed a serious health burden, with many community members suffering from respiratory illnesses.

She also noted that the electricity produced was too expensive for many residents and unreliable.

Middleburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Anna Marth Ott expressed deep concern over ongoing closures not only of coal-linked businesses, but also of heavy manufacturing enterprises that were no longer competitive as electricity prices surged.

She said it was urgent to find ways to repurpose power stations such as Komati and Hendrina, which had been earmarked for closure by Eskom in the coming few years and to facilitate new business opportunities in the region.

Eskom has indicated that it has plans to repower and repurpose both stations and that it intends using Komati – whose final operating unit will be switched off next year – as a pilot site for its unfolding just energy transition strategy.

Steve Tshwete local municipality’s Nkosi said that the council’s new LED would be alive to the fact that mining could no longer be the main engine of the economy and he revealed that the plan would seek to position the region to emulate Johannesburg, which was built as a mining town, but had since evolved into an economic powerhouse that had transitioned well beyond mining.

He said the new plan should be published by year-end.

Naledi’s Hameda Deedat reported that, together with TIPS, work was under way on a project to develop “concrete” just transition proposals, policy recommendations and projects that had been fully canvassed with stakeholders.

She said the aim of the project was to “give a voice” to vulnerable workers and communities in shaping the content of a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

“We need to reduce opposition to coal being phased out  . . . but [the phase out] also has to be taken within the context of job creation, a just transition and ensuring that workers and communities are not mere collateral damage,” Deedat said.

This view was supported by TIPS senior economist Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, who said that, to ensure an inclusive just transition, it was important to ensure that the voices within local communities were heard.

“That is critical to achieving any sort of transitional justice or, more accurately, participatory justice going forward.”

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