fairer healthier world
Image: Eyethu Coal

This year’s world health day theme is on building fairer and healthier environments – especially for the most vulnerable communities – which I unreservedly support.

However, there is much more at stake for communities that rely on the coal industry for employment.

For the past 70 years, the World Health Organization has invited us to focus on health issues on 7 April each year. I’m a bit ahead of the invitation, but this year’s theme can’t wait another week as a coal mining region in South Africa is back in the news—Mpumalanga!

Coal literally powers South Africa and Mpumalanga province is the country’s black gold heartland. Through vast mining activities, the province produces around 80% of South Africa’s coal and is home to several major coal-fired power stations, three of which are the largest in the southern hemisphere.

The province is naturally nervous about the call for reduced carbon emissions, zero use of fossil fuels and delivery of clean power solutions. Any move away from coal will impact the region’s economic health.

Mpumalanga will need strategic support to move its economic base away from an overreliance on the coal industry. However, adding renewable energy to the province’s employment opportunities will not be sufficient. The strategy must include a range of new sectors and activities beyond renewables.

During a Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) hosted development dialogue – naturally held virtually – on 25 March, guest speakers put varying opportunities forward.

These include developing the agricultural value chains, using mine rehabilitation as a platform for socio-economic development, harnessing coal ash, a waste product of coal-fired power generation, and my personal favourite, manufacturing renewable energy technologies.

It sounds like great opportunities to develop new economic activities, but these markets will not mature in the province without concerted effort.

These new activities won’t take shape while coal mining and coal-fired power continue to boost the province’s jobs. Setting the pace is recent news from an emerging mining group. The pan-African diversified investment company, Beryl Group, has acquired Africoal’s stake in Eyethu Coal, positioning the group as the 100% shareholder in Eyethu Coal.

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Who is Eyethu Coal, and what is the significance of this deal?

According to the Beryl Group’s website, Eyethu Coal “constantly explores the Mpumalanga region of South Africa for new coal reserves, thus ensuring the future sustainability and ability of the company to supply coal into designated markets. The company now produces in excess of 20 million tons of coal annually”.

The deal’s significance is that the group estimates that this coal platform will provide the prospect of economic stimulus by adding an estimated 2,000 jobs.

Regarding the acquisition, Beryl Group states that the timing is of utmost importance and in line with the demand for coal. Their market as a coal supplier locally appears quite solid, which is also supported by a need for exporting A-Grade coal.

On the face of it, this is a sound deal. Even though coal-fired power is not clean, supplying the power plants with quality coal does reduce emissions. Although weighing up healthy versus a healthier choice in the fossil fuel market does seem a moot point.

Jobs are at stake but so are healthy environments and the health of people. In South Africa, the state-owned power utility, Eskom, and boosted by the IRP, will bring new coal online but decommissioning of coal plants is also underway while globally, the demand for coal will eventually decline substantially.

In another instance, the Pretoria High Court recently issued a temporary block on a coal mine in Mpumalanga. In response to the interdict, Robby Mokgalaka, coal community campaigner with environmental justice group groundWork, commented: “Decades of mining and burning of coal has caused toxic air pollution and water pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld, which has meant ill health and premature death for thousands of people living here.”

With these scenarios unfolding, is coal the market we want to depend on for jobs and community development?

It’s a difficult conversation but one that demands our immediate attention. All stakeholders – from academics to government, the private sector and those most affected by job losses – are needed to address building a fairer, healthier world for everyone.

Stay in good health!
Until next week.
Nicolette