Mines closing before receiving water licences

The Umcebo Nowesco mine at Brakfontein, which was established by the BEE company Umcebo Holdings, was abandoned in November 2009 before a valid water licence had been issued by the Department of Water Affairs, according to Secunda-based DA councillor James Harris.

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It’s an open secret that over 120 South African mines operate without water licences, but this is the first recorded instance of a mine ceasing operations while still waiting for a licence. Gareth Morgan, DA shadow minister for water affairs, said this illustrates why the backlog of water licences is a problem. 

“The licence contains the provisions for mine closure in regard of water. In its absence, you can’t hold a miner accountable for misuse of the resource. There’s no general standard that can be referred to in a court of law. If this mine has transgressed we can’t hold it to account.” Harris said he believed the miner purposely closed before receiving a water licence to dodge responsibility for rehabilitating the area.

“That mine opened and shut in 18 months, and they left without doing any rehabilitation. It has since emerged they’ve done the same thing at other sites – the department has acknowledged this,” he said. “It’s like a hit and run – if you disappear before the licence is processed, you potentially escape taking responsibility for the mess you’ve caused.”

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Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for water affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica, said the minister is aware of the situation. “A criminal case was opened against Umcebo for one of its mines. But the case was withdrawn. The minister isn’t happy and water affairs officials are in contact with the National Prosecuting Authority to decide on the way forward.” But the department has laid criminal charges against only three mines in recent years, despite the fact that 120 mines operate without water licences.

“Nobody has a right to automatically expect a water-use licence, but now, if you ask for a water licence, you get one,” said Morgan. “I suspect it’s difficult for Sonjica to decline water licences as a lot of mines these days are politically well-connected.”

Former Department of Trade and Industry director general Dr Alistair Paul Ruiters is one of the directors of Umcebo Mining, which is controlled by the BEE company Ehlobo Holdings, which is in turn controlled by the LMR Trust and the Bagus Family Trust. Umcebo and Ehlobo confirmed that the water affairs department was investigating the closure of the Brakfontein mine, but wouldn’t comment further.