South Africa: The ‘Voice of the Earth’ and the Fight for Mupo

South Africa: The ‘Voice of the Earth’ and the Fight for Mupo

Another Makhadzi, sitting (Photo: Phillipa Terblanche)
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June 7, 2013

Never and never again shall we experience the oppression by one another, we are one nation with different cultures.” – Nelson Mandela

On 16th February 2013 in Venda, South Africa, members of the Indigenous VhaVenda clans and a high profile representative of the CoAL of Africa mining company drove out through vast stretches of the Venda territory–Their destination a ‘public participation’ meeting concerning a new and controversial mine proposed for the region.

Along the way, the impacts of groundwater extraction for mining taking place many miles away are obvious. The land is parched and cracked, plants are few and far between, and the streams where water once flowed now run dry. This landscape is a warning, a premonition of what much of Venda may come to look like if more extraction is permitted.

The VhaVenda people know this. Communities are now raising their voices in resistance to new mining that threatens their sacred natural sites, livelihoods and the coherency of their existence. Their struggle to be heard and for the recognition of their rights to govern and protect their sacred natural sites and territories has become emblematic of the critical need for a new direction in South Africa; One that maintains the health and integrity of people and Earth rather than reserving compassion for industry.

With the nation facing a looming crisis over water and its over-reliance on harmful energy sources provided by the mining sector, saying NO to mining is essential to the health and well-being of future generations.

Coal Rush

A recent Greenpeace report highlighting the severity of South Africa’s reliance on coal revealed that ninety percent of the countries electricity is now produced using energy from coal fired power plants.

This is a shocking statistic in a world where all nations must look to reduce their emissions and combat climate change, yet there appear to be no immediate plans to address this over-dependence. Eskom, SA’s biggest electricity provider, has just announced government backed plans to build two more plants, each with a life span of fifty years.

South Africa’s commitment to coal for at least another two generations is environmentally catastrophic, but the growing national and international demand for coal has provided ample economic motivation to ignore this.

Coal is big business and South Africa has a growing domestic population as well as strong links to an international market hungry for its subterranean resources. Naturally, the usual suspects of foreign mining investment are knocking at, or have already walked through the nations door. With their vast wealth they are considered welcome guests by many and tout themselves as harbingers of economic growth and a solution to unemployment.

One of the many foreign suppliers that have taken up the mantle of coal extraction in the ‘rainbow nation’ is Coal of Africa (CoAL), an Australian-based coal mining company that has had a presence in the country for years. With operations slowing down at two of its older mines, the company, looking to consolidate its revenue streams, has recently developed a significant interest in Limpopo Province.

Keen to exploit the areas’ reserves of ‘black gold’ it has submitted two applications for New Order Mining Rights (NOMR) to the Department of Mineral Resources to mine at two locations in the region. However, it has not been able to fully begin extraction.

CoAL is currently only able to mine in a restricted capacity at its Vele colliery, which stands a mere 6km away from the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Vhembe biosphere. Operations have been blocked at the Makhado Project in Venda.

The development of activities at both mines has stalled as they have encountered significant challenges in acquiring the necessary environmental licensing. This can be put down to both CoAL’s failures to meet legally required standards and the pro-active efforts of civil society groups and international allies.

In the case of the Vele mine, these pro-active parties endured a protracted court case, false dawns and numerous broken promises at the hands of CoAL. Whilst the goal of halting operations entirely has not yet been achieved they have been successful in demonstrating the adverse impacts both projects are likely to have on the integrity of local ecosystems and communities. This fundamentally calls into question CoAL’s claims that it will “demonstrate active stewardship of land and biodiversity” and “respect peoples’ culture and heritage.”

Defending Mupo from the mines

Local communities have played a highly significant role in restricting CoAL’s freedoms so far. Resistance has risen particularly strongly amongst the Indigenous VhaVenda people, many of whom are actively opposing CoAL’s Makhado mine in Venda. At the heart of their efforts to protect the land is the VhaVenda belief that minerals such as coal are not inert ‘resources’ but living elements of their territory; This extends not only horizontally across the land but also vertically to the constellations and deep into the Earth. All the elements and members of this territory are connected and vitally important for the health of the whole community.

Minerals in particular are revered in VhaVenda culture due to the role they play in maintaining the balance in Zwifho (Sacred Natural Sites in the VhaVenda language) and Mupo–Mother Earth, the Universe, all of creation which is not human made–rather than their profitability. According to the Makhadzi (‘rainmakers’), female spiritual custodians of Venda Sacred Natural Sites:

“Minerals and metals are the heart of the Earth. They are the Earth, especially in our Zwifho, our sacred sites.”

The vitality of these Zwifho is key to the health of the whole ecosystem in terms of customary governance, spirituality and biodiversity. The Makhadzi practice rituals to maintain the balance of Mupo at Zwifho which often correspond with natural features in the ecosystem that are vital for the health of the whole, such as forests and water sources. By respecting these sites as sacred the custodians play a vital ecological role, protecting the vital links between interdependent elements of the ecosystem.

The VhaVenda are acutely aware of the threat mining poses to their Zwifho and territory having seen the impact it has had in nearby areas. The Makhadzi have explicitly said that “(Zwifho) will die if minerals or metals are removed. Their life force will be drained. If we do this we will kill Mupo, our Mother Earth.”

Recognizing the destruction to their territories mining will cause, many Makhadzi are now responding under the banner of a group called Dzomo la Mupo (‘Mouth and Voice of the Earth’), which exists to work for the protection of Mupo and networks of Zwifho.

The group has already had some success in holding those responsible for previous environmental damages, perpetrated by tourism initiatives, to account. Yet the group faces a far greater challenge with the Makhado mining project. The key to upholding the integrity of Mupo now lies in stopping large-scale mining from getting underway at all. Failure to do so could have disastrous repercussions for the “heart of the Earth” and those who depend on her.

A second Makhadzi (Photo: Gaia Foundation)

A second Makhadzi (Photo: Gaia Foundation)

Water Wars – Life vs Profit

Central to the concerns of local VhaVenda communities and civil society groups such as the Mupo Foundation (South Africa), and international allies such as the Gaia Foundation (UK) and the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), is the effect that the Makhado mine is likely to have on water supplies in Venda. As the lifeblood of any ecosystem, drastically altering water systems will inevitably have wide ranging knock on effects.

Another recent Greenpeace Africa report asserts that coal mining is responsible for a “hidden water footprint” in the country. The government’s failure thus far to adapt its energy strategies in light of this has left the nation facing a ‘supply and demand’ shortfall of 2.7 billion cubic metres of water by 2030. It also highlights the case of the Makhado mine in Venda as one that epitomizes the growing conflict between securing water for life and acquiring water for industry.

According to Dzomo la Mupo member Mpatheleni Makaulule, “the miners are taking water that our community needs… taking our drinking water, water for our crops and Nature’s water.”

With an average rainfall of only around 300mm per year in the proposed NOMR area for Makhado, the Venda ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to change, making the misappropriation of water a particularly pressing issue. It is estimated that due to global warming alone average rainfall in the area may fall by 15% in future, a huge drop for an already arid area.

For CoAL, proving that they there is enough water to run the mine and how the company will ensure local communities retain reasonable access has been a key obstacle to establishing the Makhado mine from the start. The company’s own studies have found that water resources in the area would be significantly impacted by the mine:

“The most important cumulative biodiversity impact of the proposed coal mine is probably the potential cumulative impacts of water abstraction … the mine will most probably decrease the wilderness tranquility of the relatively unspoiled environment the scenic beauty of the area (sense of place)… it could also potentially increase the pressure on the sensitive and endangered Mutamba River ecosystem and species.”

Were the Makhado mine to become active, without having the reliable water source required, it could exhaust the regions supply of groundwater within years. It is suggested the mine could guzzle a volume comparable to the prodigious 4.6 million litres of water required at Vele each day, though figures are less than readily available.

Negotiations with commercial farmers over using water drawn from the Nzhelele Dam have not proffered a solution despite a memorandum of agreement signing over a large portion of this reserve. The Department of Water Affairs reports that there is no unallocated water in the area.

For these reasons CoAL has been unable so far to gain an Integrated Water Use License (IWUL) for Makhado. It has also failed to provide an adequate or completed Environmental Management Plan (EMP) or Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) yet the company is actively pursuing an ongoing process to try and secure these prerequisites to mining.

Despite these failings, fears abound that CoAL may yet be granted the ‘right’ to start mining by the Department of Mineral Resources – the department that granted an NOMR despite the area’s low water status.

Dzomo la Mupo are particularly concerned, recognizing that water sources such as the Shashe, Nzhelele and Mutamba rivers are already being put under stress in their ancestral territory by commercial agriculture and tourism.

Local communities depend on these rivers that are vital for the cultural continuity of VhaVenda life. They have opposed CoAL being granted an IWUL and now, in an attempt to protect their territory, Dzomo la Mupo and ten other local community groups are calling for their Zwifho and territories to be recognized as No-Go-Zones in terms of development.

With the support of the Mupo and Gaia Foundations they are engaged in securing legal recognition of the networks of these sacred natural sites according to their customary governance systems. It is hoped that this will strengthen their ability to both resist mining and protect water sources and ecosystems.

Recent Developments: ‘Public Participation’

In the latest chapter of the struggle to safeguard Mupo, members of Dzomo la Mupo took their struggle to CoAL’s doorstep.

Their voices arrived through a letter at CoAL’s AGM in London, the home of global mining finance, in November 2012 to deliver the following message:

“We do not understand why visitors feel they can come into our ancestral land, destroy it totally in a few decades then walk away… This tragedy is not only our tragedy, it is a global tragedy… what are we going to tell the future generations if we keep quiet and allow the disaster that will destroy all of life?”

Clearly unable to ignore this direct affront, CoAL sent a member of its board to liaise with Dzomo la Mupo earlier this year, with observers from the Mupo Foundation, Gaia Foundation and the ABN also in attendance.

Dzomo la Mupo were determined to seize this as an opportunity to say NO to mining and voice specific concerns, but remained wary that CoAL may seek to use it as an opportunity to quell resistance. Unfortunately these suspicions were quickly substantiated.

We pick up the story of this meeting after the long drive to the venue and struggling landscape had provided an atmospheric prelude to discussions.

After introductory discussions CoAL’s representative quickly sought to undermine the meetings’ importance and downplay the right of communities to determine their own priorities, despite its recognition in, for example, the ILO Convention 169 and African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights. This right necessarily includes the right to withhold consent of activities that could destroy ecosystems and communities.

Constantly labeling the villages represented by Dzomo la Mupo as “indirectly affected” (they are not directly in the NOMR area), the representative made plain that CoAL was “not here to hear whether Dzomo la Mupo supports mining or not”, explaining that if ‘directly affected’ communities consented “mining will happen anyway.”

Stating that “if we (CoAL) don’t come to you the law will be against us”, he clearly indicated that CoAL is merely interested in ticking the boxes of consultation in a case in which the boundaries between consultation and consent have been significantly blurred.

Though perturbed by this rhetoric, Dzomo la Mupo members nonetheless used the meeting as a platform to put CoAL on the spot on a number of key issues.


“Already we have less water in our boreholes and are seeing baron land appearing because of a lack of water” one community member explained to the representative, demonstrating why the issue of water above all others renders the idea that any local community is ‘indirectly affected’ absurd.

The Makhadzi added that “rain has been coming but the water has been black” to force home the point that the impacts of mining do not respect boundaries; That ‘indirectly affected’ communities are already feeling the impacts of water depletion and pollution because of other mining projects; That new mining would only make things worse for the future.

Another Makhadzi, sitting  (Photo: Phillipa Terblanche)

A third Makhadzi, sitting (Photo: Phillipa Terblanche)

“When we look at the water we are talking on behalf of the future generations”, said one Dzomo la Mupo member. “We have seen all the impacts or damage which remain after mining has done its activities and gone away. If you were looking and watching on our journey coming here you will see there are piles of mining left over and under the trees they are not green, there are no grasses.”

The representative’s responses to Dzomo la Mupo’s questions and concerns on this topic could be considered comical were it not for the gravity of the situation. His only offering was that technology can be used to find all kinds of alternatives and that “they (CoAL) will get water from mist… there are good signs of that alternative.”

Having discussed that CoAL may want to cut down forested areas surrounding Zwifho, Dzomo la Mupo members immediately responded by pointing out a glaring contradiction in CoAL’s plan: Where, they asked, does CoAL hope to find mist in abundance if it plans to cut down trees?

“We know that mist comes from Sacred Sites and this mist makes water…people looking for mist will not find it if the trees are no longer there!”

Forests, especially those safeguarded in Zwifho, are a vital part of the water cycle, providing the conditions for rainfall and helping mist and fog to form via evapo-transpiration. Forest loss of the kind it is suggested ‘development’ of the mine would bring would drastically reduce the creation of rain, mist or fog as well as potentially drying any aquifers fed by fog drip. This would, of course, be ecologically and socially disastrous.

In light of this, it is clear that CoAL’s spokesman was clutching at straws (or mist), suggesting that the company still has not secured a sufficient water source. Without this an IWUL cannot be granted and mining cannot occur.


Job creation also emerged as a key topic of discussion, with Dzomo la Mupo keen to contest the CoAL representative’s claim that “the world which we are living in is no longer the world of planting or ploughing for maize– it’s the time (of) minerals under the ground which are managed by the Government.”

CoAL have used the prospect of employment as an advocacy tool to push mining as a form of local development in Venda, but Dzomo la Mupo delivered the message that they “do not want jobs that damage Mupo.” They made clear that they “don’t want jobs lasting fifteen years, but for thousands of years for future generations” and that their focus is not on short term, destructive gain but in maintaining the livelihoods that have sustained them since time immemorial. As one elder said during the meeting: “who will use the money (from the mine) if there is no-one left on the land?”

Sacred Natural Sites and Compensation

Perhaps sensing that his attempts to quell resistance with rhetoric were failing, CoAL’s representative tried to placate Dzomo la Mupo with numerous promises of ‘compensation’ throughout the meeting.

Most strikingly, the delegate seemed to suggest that CoAL hopes to adequately compensate for the mine’s destruction of Zwifho in monetary terms.

Referring to an occasion when CoAL negotiated a price for a sacred site to be blessed, allowing its removal, by a clan member, he told Dzomo la Mupo that: “if we are having development which you know is not allowed (by custom)… tell us and we will give you money to perform those rituals. We will not (develop) before you do rituals.” He further intimated that, as was the case at Vele, it could be arranged for Zwifho to be moved to other areas to allow development.

Members of Dzomo la Mupo openly decried this attempt to get the group to legitimize the destruction of Zwifho. Their message for the visitor was, as one Dzomo la Mupo member put it, “we are not children who can be bribed with sweets!” the Zwifho are not expendable, whatever the sum, because, “if Venda people lose their Sacred Sites there will no longer be Venda people. The stronghold of our life is Zwifho”.

Having heard CoAL’s attempts to address local and international concerns, Dzomo la Mupo had one overwhelming message for the company:

“We say NO to mining.”

Silver Linings

Despite the far-from-transparent exchange of mutual concerns on CoAL’s behalf there were positives to be taken from the meeting for Dzomo la Mupo.

Chief amongst these was the CoAL representative’s insistence that Dzomo la Mupo members stop arguing publicly that coal mining leads to destruction. He told the group that he was ”consulting you (Dzomo la Mupo) to stop that language because if it goes to the media it exposes us (CoAL) very badly… I cannot argue on TV with a Venda child.”

This provided Dzomo la Mupo members with a sign that CoAL is worried about the bad press it has accumulated; A fact they can take heart from as a validation of their efforts so far to prevent the threat posed by the Makhado project becoming a reality.

With the fate of the mine hanging in the balance, counterpoised by that of Mupo, this kind hope is invaluable to energize continued resistance.

Now the relevant authorities and other affected parties must play their part and place the interests of life before those of industry. Not doing so in Venda, in Limpopo and in South Africa will mean Ecocide, the irretrievable destruction of Indigenous cultures, and the unnecessary submission to a bleak national future of water shortages and continuing pollution of the global climate.

It is time for them to heed the ‘Voice of the Earth’ and Indigenous wisdom and time also for us to support Dzomo la Mupo in demanding that all mining is stopped “for the sake of all future generations … so that our precious water can continue nourishing the lives of all species.”

“We have the responsibility to stop this Ecocide. We will not give up until we succeed.”– Dzomo la Mupo

This article draws on discussions with Dzomo la Mupo and their meeting with CoAL in February 2013. With thanks to Dzomo la Mupo, the Mupo Foundation and the Gaia Foundation for their contributions.

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