Public participation just a window-dressing exercise

Tholakele Nene sums up the sentiments of mining-affected communities who use the #MineAlert mobile app

Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane was recently booed off the stage by communities in Mpumalanga during an Imbizo on the Mining Charter. Photo: Benerd Ngomane, Community Monitors

Many community members have turned environmental activists as a result of multitudes of mining companies setting up camp in South Africa, and doing half a job when it comes to consulting affected communities on mining developments.

Earlier this year #MineAlert published an investigation that looked into the reality of social and labour plans in the extractives sector. The community of Nkanini in Mpumalanga, like many communities we have talked to over time, was very unhappy about the level of consultation leading up to and after mining had started in their neighbourhood. They complained about the fruitless results of extensive community meetings during the application stage that later left their rural community displaced and struggling to make ends meet.

During our investigation we discovered there was a system called “grievance mechanisms” which supposedly enabled communities to raise their concerns directly to the mine. However, the channels for them to do this were never shared with us, and have not been used by the Nkanini community to date.

Consultation after rights are granted

Malengine community members in Limpopo have organised their own scholar patrol on the mine road near Braakfontein shaft, in an attempt to improve safety on the busy mine which claimed two lives in 2012. Photo: Selowa, community activist

The experience of “ghost” social and labour plans (SLPs) and vanishing agreements between communities and mining companies is one of the factors fuelling the anger behind community protests and rebellion against mines. Some communities are frustrated because there is no copy available of any written agreement made between the mine and community outlining their comments and concerns, and the promises made by a mine. On more than one occasion activists have told us that requests for talks fall on deaf ears once a right to mine has been granted.

Recently #MineAlert was approached by a mining activist in Limpopo to assist in securing an SLP/contract between the community and Bokoni mine, which had failed to live up to the promises made during consultation and, according to the activist, were not doing anything to remedy the situation or meet communities to hear their concerns or develop systems of communication.

Just a tick in the box

The complaints raised by these communities over the ineffectiveness of public participation are not an issue that is exclusive to the extractives sector.

A recent public participation survey conducted by Parliament involving 77 individuals and organisations between July 2015 and June 2016 showed that 37% of participants believed Parliament does not take public input seriously. Asked about Parliament’s average comment period of 17 days from date of announcement to deadline, 44% of respondents said one month was the ideal time for comments and 35% felt that more than one month was required. An alarming 79% of respondents said there was not sufficient feedback on submissions from Parliament after oral hearings, leading communities to feel that their submissions were not considered (see full report here).

A case of David and Goliath

Recent events in the environmental sector are proof that communities are prepared to take matters into their own hands if their voices are ignored.

In June the Kimberley High Court overturned a costs order against Dawid Markus, an environmental activist, awarded to diamond mining company West Coast Resources. According to an article by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), after numerous failed attempts to meet with the mine to discuss the impacts it had on the community, Markus joined a small protest — and as a way of “shutting him up” the mine took him to court.

CALS lawyer Wandisa Phama said: ‘We often see community activists who speak truth to power face this kind of victimisation in their work. The court order acknowledges the importance of keeping the space open for communities to have a say about development that affects them.”

Phama’s words echo the Constitution, which says everyone has a right to freedom of expression; to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations — rights that many activists argue are being ignored.

Nothing about us without us

Community activists are working with human rights and environmental NGOs and lawyers to track on-the-ground violations. Photo: Lorraine, Community Monitors

There is a common thread running through the Parliamentary survey to the feedback from communities on the ground. It is that public participation is just a formality that means nothing to people in position of power. This leaves communities with the sense that decisions are taken beforehand and citizen input is a mere formality.

Community-based activists, non-governmental organisations and lawyers are helping to turn the tables on the extractives industry, making sure that there will be nothing about communities without communities.

There are now tools and a vast pool of networks that can help communities strengthen their case and seek justice. An increasingly useful tool being used by these communities is #MineAlert, the web-based app that provides a centralised platform for accessing, tracking and sharing information and documents on mining applications and licences.

Tholakele Nene is an Associate of Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism and manager of #MineAlert