New mine threatens historic South African site

MAPUNGUBWE NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — The Iron Age inhabitants of Mapungubwe created little fuss when they settled on this piece of arid land in the extreme north of South Africa about 1,000 years ago. But newcomers to the area have raised quite a stir among present-day residents.

Coal of Africa Ltd., a South African coal producer, plans to develop a coal mine just four miles from the edge of Mapungubwe National Park and about 17 miles from Mapungubwe Hill, an archaeological site that gave the area its World Heritage status. The proposed mine has environmentalists, park operators and some game lodge owners up in arms, as they fear the area’s natural and cultural appeal will be compromised despite Coal of Africa’s assurances to the contrary.

“We believe that this activity can coexist in harmony with the other activities in that area,” said Riaan van der Merwe, Coal of Africa’s chief operations officer. “Because, in terms of our designs, we will apply responsible mining technology and mining methods.”

While the mining company hopes to receive the go-ahead by September and start production before the end of the year, government approval is by no means assured. The decision will be an indication of where the priorities of President Jacob Zuma’s administration lie in these tough economic times.

Tourism is a major contributor to South Africa ‘s gross domestic product — 10 million visitors are expected to visit the country next year — but Africa’s largest economy is hungry for jobs. The African National Congress government has pledged to cut the unemployment rate by half over the next five years. It currently stands at 23.5 percent, and the recent confirmation that South Africa has entered its first recession in 17 years is not a good omen for future job creation.

“We believe that’s going to be a senior government decision as to whether the country is committed to its heritage, nature and its national parks or whether it’s actually hell-bent on industrialization of every piece of land that we’ve got,” said Paul Hatty, owner of a game lodge next to the national park.

At the center of the government’s quandary stands Mapungubwe, one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage sites. The bottom of Mapungubwe Hill was inhabited starting around 1030 A.D., and 90 years later, Mapungubwe’s royal family moved atop the sandstone hill while about 5,000 commoners continued to live on the plain.

“The history that was uncovered by the excavations at Mapungubwe, combined with the oral history, tells us that this was one of the first stratified, complex societies in southern Africa, and it changed the history books,” said Mary Leslie, an archaeologist at the South Africa Heritage Resources Agency.

The hilltop also served as a cemetery for dignitaries whose graves contained glass beads from India and elaborate gold artifacts, indicating that the people of Mapungubwe were both successful traders and skillful craftsmen. The site was abandoned around 1290 A.D. and rediscovered in the 1930s. The discovery remained scarcely publicized for decades, as it undermined the apartheid regime’s ideology that ancient blacks were not civilized.

Now the Mapungubwe site is the major attraction of the national park established in 2004. The park, located near the Zimbabwe and Botswana borders, is also home to abundant wildlife, including elephants and lions.

Earlier this month, Coal of Africa submitted a required environmental management program to South Africa’s Department of Minerals and Energy. The company has pledged to spend about $44 million on environmental and social projects, including measures to reduce noise and dust and a nursery to plant indigenous trees.

South African National Parks, an agency that reports to the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, is not impressed.

“The bottom line is: We’re opposing it,” said spokesman Reynold Thakhuli, who was visiting Mapungubwe National Park this week. Thakhuli declined to comment further, saying that high-level negotiations were taking place within the government over the issue.

One of the major arguments in the mine’s favor is the employment it will create. Limpopo, the province where Mapungubwe is located, is one of the poorest in the country. Coal of Africa said the mine will employ up to 2,600 permanent and temporary workers at any one time, and will lead to the creation of 28,000 direct and indirect jobs in total.

Bheki Khumalo, the minerals department’s spokesman, said job creation is one of the factors taken into account when deciding whether to grant mining rights, but equally important is the potential environmental impact, he said.

“In the past we have refused to grant rights” when the environmental management measures were not deemed satisfactory, Khumalo said.

Hatty said he is aware of Coal of Africa’s proposed environmental measures, but he said they won’t prevent the area from being spoiled.

“My little operation, obviously it’s very important. It’s my life,” Hatty said. But what is more important, Hatty said, is “this whole heritage area. We’re willing to just throw it away and just disregard it and let it be covered in a whole pile of coal dust.”

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