A surprise, flip-flop decision by Mpumalanga MEC for Environmental Affairs Vusi Shongwe has delivered another blow to an Indian mining company trying to establish a huge new coal mine in a critical water catchment area.
Shongwe's decision has reignited a vicious Twitter exchange about the proposed mine.
Atha-Africa Ventures, a local subsidiary of India-based transnational mining and minerals company Atha Group, is attempting to develop the Yzermyn coal mine, an underground mine with a projected 15-year-lifespan that lies within the Mabola Protected Environment (MPE).
The MPE was proclaimed in January 2014 to help protect a strategic water catchment and crucial biodiversity area of the highly threatened Mpumalanga grasslands and wetlands.
In November last year, during a legal challenge to the mine, Shongwe suddenly published a Notice of Intention in the Provincial Gazette to exclude three of the properties that make up the proposed coal mine from the protected environment - a move that would have effectively paved the way for mining.
In an affidavit, Shongwe explained that he had been approached during March 2018 by members of the local community with a request to exclude the protected properties.
But in mid-December - and equally unexpectedly - Shongwe signed a new notice to withdraw his original Notice of Intention, with no reasons being given for his change of heart. That decision was published in the Provincial Gazette on 25 January.
The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) had filed a 22-page objection to the proposed excision of the coal mining properties from the MPE, pointing out that Shongwe's plan was to facilitate the development of the proposed Yzermyn coal mine.
The CER said that, as part of his initial rationale for wanting to excise the properties from the protected area, Shongwe had included a memorandum dated 6 March 2018 from a Volksrust-based civic organisation, the Voice Community Representative Council, that purported to represent the majority of people living in the Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Municipality.
The memorandum, that had raised "serious concerns" about declaring the Mabola Protected Environment, had been accompanied by a petition signed by some 8,500 community members, Shongwe said.
However, the CER pointed out in its objection that the petition was dated 30 August 2013, and had been submitted to then environment MEC "Pinky" Phosa when she was considering declaring the Mabola Protected Environment. "The Petition is of little, if any, relevance to the Exclusion Notice presently before the Honourable MEC [Shongwe]," the CER argued.
Responding to an invitation by GroundUp to comment, Atha-Africa said it had not made any representations on Shongwe's original Notice of Intention and did not have any comment on the matter.
"Atha is aware that the community of Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme opposed the declaration of the Mabola Protected Environment in 2014 and a petition was signed by over 9,000 community members against the declaration. Only the local community can comment if this latest decision to withdraw the notice of intention to exclude properties from Mabola Protected Environment has the community's buy-in or not," the company said.
However, that careful response was in sharp contrast to what transpired on Twitter.
Environmental journalist Elise Tempelhoff posed a question to Atha-Africa senior vice-president Praveer Tripathi on Twitter, asking whether Shongwe's latest decision meant that Atha-Africa had now "given up" on Mabola.
The head of the Voice Community Representative Council, Thabiso Nene, who tweets as @madlokovu15, jumped in with a reply, labelling Tempelhoff's question "disgusting".
In a second tweet to Tempelhoff, Nene said:
"Fun hw u have been absent when community was rejecting CER [Centre for Environmental Rights]. Bt not surprise yo kind tell the story of the elite. Watch the next move of the community. We will not rest till we have our democratic way. Even if Atha give up, community will not quite [quit]."
Both Nene's tweets also tagged Tripathi, who has waged a bitter Twitter war against opponents of Atha-Africa's proposed coal mine but who insists that his tweets reflect his personal views and not his company's.
Tripathi tweeted several times, tagging both Tempelhoff and Nene. One of his Tweets reads:
"If the community gives up it would mean that a handful of foreign funded anti-development anti-people CSO's [Civil Society Organisations] with media in their support can stop any development and employment with their slick lies. Their tactics are abominable but what's more sick is that media can't see it."
In other tweets, he makes new derogatory and defamatory remarks about the CER, which is representing the eight members of a Coalition opposing development of the proposed coal mine. This was despite Tripathi telling the Minerals Council of South Africa (formerly the Chamber of Mines) - in response to a formal complaint to the council by the CER - last year that he would be "more sensitive" in his social media comments about those opposing his company's attempt to mine coal at Yzermyn.
In November last year, the North Gauteng High Court upheld an application by the Coalition of eight environmental and social justice groups to review and set aside of the government's secret decision to allow Atha-Africa's proposed coal mine to be developed within the Mabola Protected Area. Earlier this month, the court refused an application by Atha-Africa for leave to appeal that decision.