Human Rights Commission summons ministers

Link to Mail & Guardian article

By Yolandi Groenewald | Johannesburg, South Africa

The point on the Wild Coast where mining is planned to begin (Photo: Rogan Ward)">The point on the Wild Coast where mining is planned to begin. (Photo: Rogan Ward)</img>

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has summoned three Cabinet ministers to respond to allegations that a mining licence application led to human rights abuses. Minister of Minerals and Energy Buyelwa Sonjica, Minster of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk and Minister of Land Affairs Lulama Xingwana have been summoned to appear next Wednesday. The SAHRC is investigating whether an application to mine rare minerals on the Pondoland coast was accompanied by human rights abuses, including intimidation of opponents to the scheme.

Australian mining company Mineral Commodities applied to strip-mine a 22km scenic stretch of dunes on the Wild Coast for titanium-producing minerals in 2005.

It emerged this week that the Department of Minerals and Energy said in January that "in principle" the mining proposal would be approved. This was despite strong objections by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, which alleges that legal and policy requirements have been breached.

HRC spokesperson Vincent Moaga said the subpoenas were issued after the three ministers failed to respond to the commission's inquiries about the alleged human rights abuses. Moaga said the SAHRC wants the ministers to tell it how much consultation took place with local communities before the mining licence was issued.

The complaint that triggered the SAHRC investigation alleged that the mining proposal had led to community divisions that contributed to the failure of an eco-tourism project and that supporters of the tourism initiative had been intimidated. "The mining company allegedly went ahead with its plan to engage in mining development despite the possibility that mining might thwart the resuscitated eco-tourism project," Moaga said. He said that in a meeting with the SAHRC at the end of January the Minerals and Energy Department confirmed "that in principle the dune-mining development at Xolobeni will be approved".

"Even though the department indicated that it was in the process of granting the licence, the commission still raised the concern about whether proper consultation had taken place," Moaga said. The likely approval comes despite a strongly worded letter of objection sent to the Minerals and Energy Department by the director general of environmental affairs and tourism, Pam Yako, in December last year. She expressed concern about risks of groundwater pollution and the huge threat mining poses to biodiversity in the area. Yako wrote: "It is clear that … planning and policy guidelines for the area have not been taken into consideration." She also said the environmental impact assessment of the mining proposal had serious flaws and omissions.

Yako's letter was sent after the deadline for objections. Despite this, Minerals and Energy Department spokesperson Bheki Khumalo told reporters last weekend that her objections would be considered. He could not say when an announcement on the mining licence would be made, although it had been expected in February.

The initial SAHRC complaint was made by John Clarke, a social worker representing the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which was formed by local opponents of the mining. Clarke said human rights violated by the proposed mining included the constitutional right to an "environment that is not harmful to people's health and to have the environment protected and conserved for the benefit of present and future generations".

Van Schalkwyk will not attend the SAHRC hearing in person; his department will send a delegation instead. Moaga said the commission is happy with this arrangement.

Van Schalkwyk's spokesperson said: "Essentially this is an issue that concerns the Department of Minerals and Energy as the issues raised in the complaint deal with the mining application." It is not clear if Sonjica will attend the hearing, as her department did not respond to the Mail & Guardian's questions.

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