Mpumalanga community blames Optimum Coal's competitors over Richards Bay export entitlement

15 March 2024 - 19:18
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Hundreds of residents from Middelburg, Hendrina and eMalahleni gathered at Melrose Arch to deliver a memorandum of demands to Glencore. Picture. Thapelo Morebudi.
Hundreds of residents from Middelburg, Hendrina and eMalahleni gathered at Melrose Arch to deliver a memorandum of demands to Glencore. Picture. Thapelo Morebudi.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

The Mpumalanga Action Movement has blamed Optimum Coal's competitors for preventing the mine from reopening. 

The movement, which represents residents of Middelburg, Hendrina and eMalahleni, members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and former employees of the mine, which was recently acquired by new owners Liberty Coal, gathered at Glencore headquarters in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, on Friday to hand over a memorandum of demands. 

The movement claimed the opening of the mine under the new owners, Liberty Coal, which was scheduled to open last Monday, was allegedly stalled by Glencore, Seriti and Thungela over the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT). 

Hundreds of residents, ferried by taxis to Glencore's headquarters,  demanded to see group executives. A group chanted outside the Melrose Arch offices holding placards demanding the RBCT board leave. 

A 48-year-old miner who worked at Optimum's Coal mine from 2013 until its closure when the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) attached the assets of the mine was among the protesters. 

Goman Gwentshu,48, said his life has been difficult since the mine was closed and had to change his children's schools as he could no longer afford the fees at their old schools. 

He said since 2018 he had been doing “minimal jobs” to survive with the hope that one day the mine would reopen and he would get his old job back. 

“We have moved places. We were renting where I was staying but were evicted as the owners sold their house.

“Since the mine was closed,  there were contractors who were working there and we don't even know what is happening,” he said. 

Another former employee Thabani Buthelezi, 28, said he had moved to an informal settlement since the mine's closure because he could no longer afford to stay where he had been staying.

He said community leaders had previously called a mass meeting and promised people the mine would be reopened.

“Some people went to their families and told them that they would get their jobs back and nothing happened,” he said.

He and other former workers had travelled from Mpumalanga on Friday hoping t it would make a difference and they could possibly get their jobs back. 

“Where I stay is very bad but we wait and hope. Since 2018 until now we don't know what is happening even when we try to find other jobs, we don't get them.

Last week I was hopeful that the mine would open but when it is like this, even though I've already suffered it seems like it will continue,” he said.

Mpumalanga Action Movement spokesperson Mpumelelo Mashifane said for the past six years they have been highlighting the plight of the community and workers affected by the closure of the mine. 

He said the community was excited last month after being informed the mine would reopen.

“It was rescheduled to be reopened by March 8, even notices were sent out, only to find the big miners, namely Thungela, Seriti and Glencore, are colluding to deny Optimum its entitlement at the Richards Bay Coal Terminal,” he said. 

He said since the closure of the mine, the local economy in Hendrina has been dwindling and there is a huge reticulation plant at the mine. 

“It supplies 60% of the bulk water to Hendrina and with the closure of the mine, there are inherent water problems because the mine can’t supply water adding to what the municipality is supplying.

“You will understand that Optimum is one of the biggest coal operations in Mpumalanga, was employing over 3,000 people before it went into business rescue and so a lot of families have lost their houses, people have lost cars, people had dreams shattered as children couldn't go to school. Those who were about to finish matric whose fathers were working in the mine, suddenly couldn’t go to university,” he said. 

NUM branch secretary Richard Mguzulu said the mining companies were “cruel to people” and they had marched to the company's headquarters to highlight their plight.

“We are saying, they would rather open that allocation as soon as possible, failing which we will close all their operations, where they are operating in Mpumalanga,” he said. 

Last month NUM welcomed a settlement agreement reached over Optimum Coal Mine and Optimum Coal Terminal.

The NPA and Liberty Coal reached a settlement agreement which allowed Liberty Coal to gain ownership of Optimum Coal Mine and its export arm, the Optimum Coal Terminal.

NUM at the time called on the Richards Bay Coal Terminal board to “immediately give back Optimum’s train allocation to allow for the resumption of Optimum’s export capacity” that would ensure the reopening of the mine.

“NUM calls for Liberty Coal to re-employ all the employees who lost their jobs when Optimum Coal Mine was placed in business rescue. The NUM reiterates its position that the NPA’s preservation order against Optimum Coal Mine asserts was a final nail in the coffin of the workers who suffered at the hands of the Gupta family’s shenanigan”, said NUM Highveld regional chairperson Bizza Motubatse. 

The community and NUM demanded the “urgent opening of optimum export allocation with immediate effect”. 

A representative of Glencore accepted the memorandum and promised the company would address the issues raised. 

TimesLIVE


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