Merafong community at wits end due to poor environmental governance

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by Vusi Ndukuya
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Merafong City Local Municipality, Gauteng, is facing a major environmental risk due to man-made failings leading to sinkholes‚ water leaks, crumbling infrastructure and a shutdown of mining shafts. This has resulted in a number of environmental risks and poor service delivery for the community of Khutsong, whose fight for social retribution continues, notwithstanding the challenges.
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These findings emerged from a local community engagement exercise conducted in early May 2019 by Action 24, a European Union co-funded project promoting active citizenry for responsive legislatures. The situation has since deteriorated, forcing families to leave their private homes and move to allegedly inhabitable dwellings, while no lasting solutions have  been concretely developed.

Three more families homes near a local school have been reportedly affected by sinkholes in April 2019, which poses a serious threat to the learners.

In 2015 the environmental and sustainability issues in the area had received the attention of the Merafong Council, and it was declared a disaster area with the support of the Gauteng Province Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

The Tswelopele community coalition led by Ngaka Petlele, an environmental and socio-economic rights activist group based in Khutsong, has been mobilising a wide range of stakeholders to push for a sustainable resolve. The coalition has been actively involving the local municipality to avert further environmental impacts, while engaging with the Department of Mineral Resources to address gaps in effective public engagement in relation to the social labour plans for the mines operated by Sibanye Gold in the area.
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Ngaka Petlele (far right) stands with the Tshwelopele community coalition management committee at Action 24’s first site visit to the community in May 2019
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They have mobilised groups of women and young people, in an effort to highlight concerns around the impact of mining and environmental degradation, and how these impacts are pushing people further below the poverty line. “We have established our very own ward committee that gives a voice to women and young people while enjoying full support from the community of Khutsong. The possibility of engaging with the legislature sounds very exciting because we have been pushing this issue with little gains, especially from the municipality and the mining companies”, Petlele said. It is a patience game indeed: during the local community engagement exercise, he and his fellow committee members spent half the day at the local community hall waiting for the local Economic Development Cluster Manager from Merafong City to address them. The meeting only took place later in the afternoon.

In an article published by Times Live, the municipality maintains that, due to the increase in the size of the sinkholes after the initial investigations, more resources are required for the rehabilitation, as well as a change in the methodology. This means that the costs for the respective rehabilitation projects have gone up.  Merafong City had received a R118-million disaster management bailout package in 2017 to ensure that thousands of residents would not be adversely affected by the impacts of these problems, while ensuringdaily water supply. This budget has been utilised‚ but the risks facing residents remain. Of the five major sinkholes that were meant to be filled‚ only three have been sufficiently rehabilitated and are now considered safe.

The mining industry has experienced extreme changes, including illegal mining, migration, and environmental degradation, especially the gold mining sector, which have come with both risks and opportunities. People in gold mining towns like Khutsong have to constantly adapt to changing circumstances – be they reduced job opportunities, the destruction of pre-existing livelihoods, or the environmental and health risks that come with mining activities. They have affected the social fabric and quality of life of mining-affected communities.

Drawing from the lived experience of communities like the people of Khutsong, Action 24 seeks to understand the factors that impact these communities’ resilience.

The area’s economic activities are largely fueled by its rich gold mining history, which has been a source of attraction for migrant labour from across South Africa and neighbouring countries such as Mozambique. Khutsong is situated further away from mining sites than the greater Merafong Carletonville area and has the biggest population in the Merafong Region, which contributes mostly labour supply to the mining industry. Yet the township has the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the Municipality. It is at grip with illegal mining and spiraling informal settlements, and has experienced a negative migration in the past five years, according to the latest IDP.

The events around the demarcation and re-demarcation of the Carletonville-Khutsong areas and the strong protest action that has happened since 2005 remain visible to this day – and so does the tension it caused.

Contrary to the vernacular meaning of its name – ‘Place of Rest’ in Tswana – the township exhibits remnants of burnt debris from last week’s protest action. Such acts have the potential to turn violent. However, the sense of agency from the community illustrates understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of South Africa, and the coalition they formed is an inspiring example of efforts to build sustainable, climate resilient, and inclusive development in Gauteng.
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