Mining for development? : a socio-ecological study on the Witbank coalfield.
Coal mining on the Highveld has historically served, and continues to serve as an indissoluble cog in South Africa’s development. The study contends that the inherent speculative character of coal as a finite resource results in bearing costs beyond the financial sphere. These costs at some stage of the mine life-cycle have to be accounted for. By using a Polanyian interpretation of double movement and crisis, the study argues that the manner in which natural factors such as coal have historically been inscribed in the production process, alongside labour and technology, to a large degree determine the character of productive relations in a particular society. More fundamentally, it is argued, this interaction between capital, society and nature determines the extent to which the State is able to perform its role of counter-movement against the over-exploitation of society and nature. This is demonstrated by situating the development of a former coal mining village, Rietspruit colliery, within the necessary historical phase of South African development – as hinged upon the accessibility and availability of coal, in particular from the Witbank coalfield. It is however, in a post-coal mining context that the study alludes to the unintended social costs arising from coal-led development, arguing social costs and inequality as evident at Rietspruit colliery, as effectively institutionalised. This is due to the historic function of the State vis-à-vis facilitating mineral extraction. On this basis, the study calls into question recent sustainable development discourse such as the Department of Minerals and Energy’s Sustainable Development through Mining (2009) (SDM) initiative. The study argues the notion of mineral extraction and coal mining in particular, serving as the means de jour for achieving sustainable development, as flawed. This is illustrated at Rietspruit colliery by reflecting upon the manner in which a post-mining sustainability plan was implemented. The core issue concerns the dis-embedding of social costs related to mining, including mine closure, from the necessary historical, socio-political and socio-ecological context. Compounded by a poorly enforced regulatory environment, this approach views mine closure, including the social aspects of mine closure, in a de-politicised, technocratic manner of rationalising closure as cost-effectively as possible. It is here that the utility of the socio-ecological approach is made evident, by opening up the discursive space for social justice discourses relating to the social costs of coal mining, to find common ground with discourses concerned with environmental activism.