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So. Africa: Artisanal miners grow movement to fight for cleaner energy in Mpumalanga

‘Battle from below: The South African miners fighting climate change’ 18 September 2020

Four nights a week, Given Zuli packs some food, meets his colleagues at the entrance of an abandoned coal mine in South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga province, and descends into the earth for up to 12 hours, chipping away at the black rock. Zuli is one of thousands of small-scale, illegal miners across South Africa - a number believed to be on the rise as unemployment spikes in a brittle economy - who make a living selling coal collected in abandoned, derelict mine shafts. But Zuli is also part of a growing environmental movement in the coal-rich province, campaigning for a shift to cleaner energy, away from the black rock that both feeds his two children and pollutes the air they breathe.

As well as the health fears, Zuli and his colleagues worry about their children falling into open mines or tailings dams storing toxic byproducts that miners dub ‘Pits of Death’. At one open mine visited by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, rotting carcasses of about four sheep and cows that had fallen into the pits lay in a heap with the smell of decaying flesh hanging in the air. “Our everyday lives depend on coal,” said Zuli, 32, a qualified public safety officer who formerly worked for a mining company and is well aware of the risks faced by artisanal or informal miners who are killed every year by collapsing rocks.

…In August 2019, a Greenpeace-funded study using NASA satellite data found the town of Kriel in Mpumalanga, which has eight coal power stations within a 100 km radius, was the second biggest sulphur dioxide emissions hotspot in the world. Climate concerns and reluctance by banks to fund coal have forced some larger and international mining companies to either sell their coal assets or to limit their exposure to the fossil fuel in recent years. But this has also sparked a new generation of smaller mining companies keen to continue extraction…According to government’s Integrated Resource Plan in October 2019, by 2030 coal will account for 59% of electricity compared to 90% in 2019, with another 8% from hydropower, 6% from solar power, 18% from wind and 1% from gas and diesel. Currently, solar and wind make up 0.9% each, diesel 1.7% and other energy sources make up 2.4%, excluding natural gas and nuclear, according to the most recent figures.