1. Grootegeluk Coal Mine2. Marapong Township3. Matimba Power Station4. Medupi Power Station5. Ash Dump6. Mogol Golf Club7. Lephalale Mall8. Central Business District
Smokestacks dominate. The Matimba and Medupi power stations lord over shacks, farms, houses, schools, busy churches, emptying shops, and gun stores arming a vast hunting industry. There’s a McDonald’s. And, underneath the carbon dioxide plume, the coal town of Lephalale roils in anger, racism, corruption and fading hope.
Lephalale, in the Waterberg District of Limpopo province, has the harsh dry climate of the bushveld. Temperatures often exceed 35°C and the night brings no relief: the air never really cools. Rain, when it comes, does nothing about the heat, except bring humidity and mosquitoes.
Yet while the sun may strip the sky white, the earth is black. The Waterberg Coalfield holds between 50 to 75 billion tons of good quality coal. Carbon hauling the town out of its rural past.
With more structural steel than the world’s tallest building and an estimated 800,000m³ of concrete¹, Medupi is big. Massive. A gigantic being breathing in the earth and exhaling tendrils of high-voltage power lines. With an installed capacity of 4.8GW, Medupi is the world’s largest dry-cooled power station and will last for the next 60 years. There’s a kind of beauty about it, an engineering wonder, albeit an expensive one.
South Africa’s state owned utility, Eskom, has a virtual monopoly on the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity: Eskom’s installed capacity of 51GW electrifies Africa’s most advanced economy and Medupi is its much delayed, years behind schedule, and way over budget flagship project. Since construction began in 2007, Medupi has cost Eskom R145 billion (US$10.1 billion) and another US$1.2 billion is required to get the plant fully operational.²
Ten kilometres from Medupi, there’s another Eskom power station, the 3.9GW Matimba plant, which was completed in 1993. Compared to the national angst about Medupi’s frequent outages and design flaws, Matimba is downright boring: it simply burns coal and produces carbon dioxide, over and over again, and will do so for decades to come.
The black-empowered resource company, Exxaro, runs the nearby Grootegeluk mine, which has long-term contracts to feed both Medupi and Matimba. At the current rate of production, the open pit mine has enough coal for the next 125 years.³
The mining is routine – blast, shovel, conveyor belt...rinse and repeat – and Eskom will buy for the next six decades. A dull but profitable business. Exxaro’s net profit last year was about US$493 million.
Grootegeluk, Matimba and Medupi...
a triptych of power.
The construction of Medupi transformed Lephalale. As the boom took off, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) proclaimed that the then sleepy rural town would become South Africa’s first post-apartheid city.
Migrants flooded into town and contractors from as far away as Thailand and China drove up rents. Although reliable numbers aren’t available, anecdotal evidence indicates substantial numbers of Zimbabweans arrived both illegally and legally: opportunity pulling, terror and economic collapse pushing.
The town’s road and water infrastructure struggled to cope. A new mall was built: fancy clothing stores, chain restaurants, three supermarkets, wire transfer service, banks and an elite camping store. The Lephalale District Municipality experienced a 60 percent increase in population and the township, Marapong, filled with shacks.
The influx of workers skewed gender balance amongst the District’s 140,000 people: twelve men for every ten women.4 According to local sex workers, 500 prostitutes, mostly from Zimbabwe, serviced rising demand during the construction boom.
The Waterberg District’s HIV/AIDS prevalence rate was 27.3 percent in 2013, the highest in the province. From 2009 to 2014, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death in Lephalale amongst the 25-64 age bracket and second in the 15-24 bracket.5
Medupi is almost finished and so is the money. Times are getting rough. Rates for sex used to be between US$10 and US$14 during the boom. Now, some Zimbabweans are charging as little as US$2.
In terms of formal employment, someone over at Eskom must really like George Orwell: twenty thousand workers are being ‘demobilised’. Laid off to thrive in the country’s 38 percent unemployment rate.6
Formerly known as Ellisras, Lephalale wasn’t much more than an agricultural way station before Matimba and Medupi. A small town in the hinterland. Born in the Western Cape and contract welder at the Matimba power station in the 1980s, Johan Lewin, describes Ellisras as the most racist place in South Africa and how he had to work next to white men with guns. He says, “I want to forget my time there.”
Hidden away under the front desk of the town’s small library and shoved into a bulging Manila folder, there’s a strange collection of photos and documents from the 1980s. A document from 1990 states that the town had, “10,500 whites, +/- 10,000 blacks.” Another calls Marapong swartdorp - black town. There’s a magazine extolling the local commando, the army’s reserve system during apartheid. On the magazine’s cover, a white middle aged warrior stands to attention at the top of a mountain, rifle at his side, and sucks in his beer belly; the whole scene graced with one of the Waterberg’s beautiful sunsets.
Eskom and Exxaro see coal as not only a solution to South Africa’s urgent need for generation capacity but also as part of the country’s transformation agenda. By prioritising affirmative action and black economic empowerment, the companies are seeking to redress apartheid’s segregation and depravation.
The Engineering Manager for Operations at the Grootegeluk mine, Prince Malatji, was born in a rural village outside of Polokwane, Limpopo. Through an Exxaro training programme he moved through the ranks: artisan, supervisor, management. He’s now adding an MBA to his degree in mechanical engineering. The transformation agenda has created, as he puts it, “...an inclusive environment within this diverse context that enabled me and it enables other people as well to become who they can be.”
Mamoloko Lekokotla, currently an Eskom shift manager, was born dirt poor in a village 85km from Lephalale: in the early 90s, a family of five surviving on his grandmother’s small pension. At one point, he was returned from school simply because his mother couldn’t afford a school uniform. In 2004, a year after graduating high school with academic distinctions, he received a bursary from Eskom to study electrical engineering at Lephalale’s technical college. Then, he started working at Eskom, which he says, “...was like an injection of adrenalin into one’s heart. That boosted everything about me, my confidence, I could actually relive my dream.”
Today, Lekokotla’s house is in one of the town’s formerly whites only suburbs: a large flatscreen TV and a kicking sound system define his living room. But, more importantly, work at Matimba has allowed him to look after his siblings and ageing mother, finances that enabled her to consult doctors.
And that is the dream. To turn Prince and Mamoloko’s success stories into not only the town’s but also the nation’s. During the 2000s and early 2010s, the South African government aimed to make Lephalale the energy hub of the nation by 2025: another four coal-fired power stations, coal production to quadruple to a hundred million tonnes and railways expanded to feed rising Asian demand. A new SASOL coal-to-liquids plant, turning rock into black gold at the rate of 80,000 barrels per day. The town’s population was to double to a quarter million people.7
There was method to the ANC’s logic. Since the 1750s, coal has driven industrial development in country after country and has lifted millions out of poverty. Great Britain, America, the USSR, Germany and most recently China all used coal to power the smelters, furnaces and factories that created national wealth and alleviated poverty. There’s also a twisted precedent in South Africa.
The Witwatersrand mines have produced 50 percent of the world’s total gold production to date.8 Gold funded apartheid’s fearsome military machine and provided the cash to build Johannesburg’s skyscrapers and highways. Coal-fired power stations, foundries and factories serviced the mines, and the black proletariat built it all in draconian misery. For, as the economist Peter Bernstein once said, “The gold at the end of the rainbow is the ultimate happiness, but the gold at the bottom of the mine emerges from hell.”
Currently, coal mining in South Africa employs 87,000 people9, of which the Grootegeluk coal mine employs about 3,300.10 While coal may provide quality union jobs and part of South Africa’s transformation agenda, it is a dirty business.
As the retired general manager of the mine and one of the architects of Lephalale’s development, Joe Meyer is a big man around town. His house is all Better Homes & Gardens and his photography adorns the walls: wildlife shots next to coal mine stills.
In order to provide a ‘balanced’ perspective in terms of coal’s environmental impacts, Meyer takes us on a tour in his kitted out Landcruiser. After first showing us Exxaro’s recently built housing for mine workers—middle class brick condominiums with a close up view of Matimba—we go through Exxaro land: bushveld surrounding the pit and discard heap. He points out sable, kudu, roan antelope and waterbuck. Then, it is a cooked breakfast in the veld.
As we work our way through eggs and bacon, he talks about transformation and development. A window into the past. He says, “I think that black people in this whole process of transformation was extremely spoilt. And they are still being spoilt. Their demands is just increasing.”
Then he follows up with, “Who do you think built those houses in Soweto? The blacks? No, the government built them...Before 1994 there was far more black schools than white schools...You look at the people who came into industry, who trained them? No man, to say that the whites got everything and the blacks got nothing, that's not true.”
With poverty being the number one social ill in South Africa, the ANC continues to see the Waterberg Coalfield as a resource, like the gold mines were, that could bring about another wave of industrialisation.
Previously a local politician during the Lephalale’s Medupi boom, Dipuo Moatshe is now an ANC parliamentarian at the National Assembly: she is, in the party’s terminology, a leader. Having witnessed the town’s growth from within the ruling political structure, she is a firm believer in more coal and the government’s quest, as she puts it, “...to build a vibrant city. We need to enhance the development and services to our people.”
In her view, Eskom should build another 4800MW coal plant in the area. Moatshe says, that additional coal plant is, “Part of our economic development, to assist people with employment...Our priority as the ANC is to reduce unemployment in the country.”
But the dream of economic prosperity and a just society could end up as something else entirely. Frans Seanego, the head of the Lephalale Unemployment Forum, is a bitter young man. His fury burns like white phosphorous, “Nothing is good in Lephalale, everything is rotten. If you are not carrying the membership of the ANC, you won't get employed. If you are an EFF member or DA [opposition parties], just forget. Rather sit at home.”
His anger is not just that of those idling in shacks whilst the white old guard and the new black elite cavort in fancy BMWs and Ford 4x4s. It is the inevitable product of the contradictions of a country where inequality not just permeates but defines the social fabric.
While South Africa is an advanced economy with a complex financial system, universities, tech startups, glitzy skyscrapers, factories, petrochemical complexes and mines, it is a land of dusty, jobless townships. A society where a democratic and progressive constitution, in which socio-economic rights are enshrined and every citizen has the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment, is undercut by endemic corruption, unemployment, crime and xenophobia.
Mamogela, a small informal settlement, is on the north road out of Lephalale, just past the sign welcoming visitors to “A Vibrant City and Energy Hub”. Shacks on one side, an old sand mine on the other, and a bitter taste in the wind. A recent migrant from Somalia, Ahmed Yussuf Ali, works and sleeps in a small, corrugated iron shop selling basic goods to the settlement’s population. There’s an enduring consistency to each of Ali’s days: he is afraid that when the sun goes down, tsotsis (thieves) will come and kill him.
More than the raw sewage from broken and overloaded pumping stations or the diesel fumes retching out of the ubiquitous coal trucks, mutual frustrated loathing is Lephalale’s real perfume.
The Waterberg is old land, the ancient of the old world. The roots of its people go all the way down to humanity’s beginning, multiple footprints cover the land in both time and space. The first anatomically modern Homo sapiens come from Southern Africa and the original inhabitants of the region, now collectively called the San, were largely displaced by Bantu-speaking agropastoralists moving into the area about 2000 years ago.11 San rock art can be found near Lephalale, a matter of kilometres from painting to power station.
A few hours’ drive north of Lephalale lies the archaeological site of the Mapungubwe kingdom (900 to 1300). From the top of a flat mountain, royals ruled over the commoners and participated in a trade network that stretched, via East African coastal kingdoms, all the way to India and China. Gold and ivory for porcelain, glass beads and cotton.12
Perhaps the most impressive artefact to come from the site is a golden sculpture of a rhino. Mapungubwe National Park also holds the only known San painting of a rhino: distant condemnations of the current xenocidal wave of rhino poaching in South Africa.
In order to escape the German Herero and Namaqua genocide (1904 to 1908), Herero refugees arrived in the Lephalale area from 1906 to 1907. Their descendants are still there.
Danias Urayai, a former Zimbabwean police officer and now journalist, arrived in Lephalale in 2009. On his second day in Lephalale, he found a job working in a security company’s control room. He left Zimbabwe because, “There was hyperinflation in Zim, once you got in the queue to buy something, the price would change. It got so bad, you know, to a situation where by that my wife’s salary and my salary couldn’t buy a two litre of cooking oil.”
While he had been able to obtain a Zimbabwean passport, other Zimbabweans struggle. The Zimbabwean government has run out of foreign currency to buy the specialised paper needed to print passports and will only be issuing new passports in 2021.13 As Urayai says, “Some people just end up coming here without a passport and papers, not because of choice but because they don’t have an option.”
The current wave of external migration, primarily from Zimbabwe, into Lephalale is nothing new. People have been walking back and forth across this land for over a hundred thousand years and, on this long view, the idea that anyone owns the land dissipates as fast as a Lephalale sunrise: soft light to harsh in an instance. What is different is how the town’s growth became a noble dream corrupted and emblematic of humanity’s nihilistic approach to the environment.
In 2005, the ANC’s investment arm, Chancellor House, bought a 25 percent stake in Hitachi Africa. Eskom then awarded Hitachi a contract to build boilers at Medupi: South Africa’s ruling party made a financial investment in a company that a state-owned company (Eskom) subsequently did US$5.6 billion worth of business with. From 2008 to 2012, Hitachi Africa paid Chancellor House US$10.5 million: a 5000 percent return on its initial investment of just under US$200,000.00.14
A subcontractor to Hitachi Africa supplied and installed an ash handling plant that subsequently failed, causing machine grinding fly ash to spread across the plant.15 About nine thousand of Hitachi’s welds on the boilers were faulty. According to Eskom, the cost of Hitachi’s design flaws is about US$4.9 billion.16
Widespread looting of the state, called ‘State Capture’ in South Africa, defined the administration of President Zuma and Eskom was right in the middle of it. Media reports in April 2019 indicate that South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit is examining cases of theft, totalling US$9.7 billion, in regards to the construction of the Medupi and Kusile power stations.17
Because of design flaws and construction delays, Medupi is currently performing nowhere near its theoretical capacity and load-shedding has become all too common. Each day of load-shedding, or rolling blackouts in Eskomspeak, costs the economy an estimated US$140 million.18
Medupi bleeds money. So much so that Eskom’s debt is now so large that no one has a real idea of how it will ever be paid back: its debt has increased by about US$2.8 billion19 over the last decade whilst electricity tariffs increased 488 percent from 2006 to 2017. And, as Eskom is owned entirely by the state, that debt is ultimately the state’s debt.
Eskom’s credit rating went to junk in 2016.20
In 2017, Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor’s rated South Africa’s credit as junk. Taxes have increased in South Africa yet tax revenue is down. The economy is now in a technical recession. Debt rolls over. Austerity beckons.
In his state of the nation address in June 2019, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced a US$16 billion bailout for Eskom.21 The last rating agency to keep the country at an investment grading, Moody’s, junked South Africa on the 27th of March 2020.
One of the immediate casualties of Eskom and the state’s deepening debt trap is the planned, desired, wished for expansion of coal mining and utilisation in and around Lephalale. Despite its name, the Waterberg simply does not have the water for all the planned mines and power stations. The only way to provide the water is to build a US$970 million water transfer scheme that includes a 100km pipeline. The project most likely to happen at this stage is Exxaro’s Thabametsi mine and the attached 600MW coal-fired power station: civil society activists22 are challenging the environmental authorisation for the power station in court.
So the town patiently waits. A few in terror of what could come, of ash dumps covering fields and sulphur flavouring the wind, but most in hope, albeit fading hope. Hope that another big power station will be built, more mines dug. If the water comes, then so will the machines, union jobs, migrants, and contractors to fleece through overpriced rentals. The two shopping districts will reverse their entropic decline. Money will be made. The view that coal is development is, perhaps, the only common thread in this bitterly divided and self-segregated town.
Yet there’s more than coal to Lephalale. They kill animals.
Trophies abound throughout the town. From butchery to hotel, the glass eyes of leopard, bok, zebra, buffalo and warthog gaze down upon humans. After a while, you stop noticing the disembodied heads. One butchery, just outside of Lephalale, even had a baby crocodile in the freezer.
Lephalale is an isolated place. The closest city, Pretoria, is a three hour drive. The drive into Lephalale goes past game farm after game farm and sometimes feels like a bit of a safari in and of itself. Sable, eland, oryx, giraffe all drift by. But none of them are wild animals. They are commodities.
Changing rainfall patterns are behind the area’s shift from cattle rearing to game farming. As Marius Kotze, owner of the large game farm Rhinoland Safaris, states, “With the droughts that started in the early 80s...the droughts started and it’s just never gone back to normal. So people just can't breed cattle any more, it's just too dry.”
Hunters pick from menus: around US$60 to shoot a warthog, US$400 for a zebra, US$35,000 for a rhino. Baboons and jackals are often thrown in as freebies. In Limpopo, just under 18,000 people are employed in the hunting industry, and hunting contributes US$950 million per annum to the South African economy.23 Hunters from America, Europe, Mexico, Argentina and the Far East come to Lephalale to bag their trophies.
Colonel Steve Roets of the South African Police Service’s Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, the front line unit combating poaching, states, “I believe there is no such a thing as a wild area. We need to manage it as a big game farm.”
Fenced, patrolled, tagged, medicated, trucked and bartered.
The naturally beautiful biome that lays siege to coal town, the bushveld, is actually one vast technologically advanced field of harvest that transforms animals into money, both legally and illegally. A rhino horn goes for about US$70,000 on the black market, pangolin scales are thousands of dollars per kilogramme. Like other animals, rhino and pangolin are currently worth more dead than alive.
Warrant Officer Jurg van Heerden, the Endangered Species Unit’s officer on the ground in Lephalale, points out that the majority of the poachers he catches are from Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique and then South Africa and he’s not optimistic about the future.
A large part of the problem, according to Van Heerden, is the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. He says, “The Zimbabweans have got nothing, it's life and death for them. You can't really blame them for trying to get money, it's just the wrong way. And the rhino, the Chinese are making the market.”
Colonel Roets is also pessimistic. In his view as supplies of rhino dwindle, poachers will move increasingly on to elephant, pangolin and lion. And he believes that the only thing left to do to save the rhino is to open up the trade in rhino horn and thus give live rhino value. Farmers would be able to afford to keep and breed rhino and the black market would be repressed through the legal trade.
A leading game farmer in Lephalale, Hardus Steenekamp, echoes this view, “I think they [government] have to, at the end, also give those endangered species to the farmer himself. When I can earn money from, say a cheetah, for example, I will look after my cheetahs. I don't harm them in any way because I can hunt. They have value.”
Special Agent Ed Newcomer Jr. from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, attached to the US Embassy in Pretoria and assisting the South African police, disagrees. He believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn won’t solve the problem and may exacerbate it. The problem, for Newcomer, is on the demand side. Unless Asian markets, in particular China and Vietnam, reduce their demand for African wildlife, poaching to extinction will continue.
Rising prosperity in Asia has correlated with increased demand for fin, ivory, horn, scale and bone, and coal continues to drive that prosperity.
Once Medupi24 is fully operational, it and Matimba25 will emit a combined total of about 60Mt of carbon dioxide a year. That’s like an individual flying return from London to New York approximately 61 million times.26 The possibility that South Africa, especially after Medupi’s long, torturous and expensive construction, would shut down these power stations any time within the next four to six decades is remote.
In 2017, mining giant Exxaro signed a 10 year agreement with the state railway that would allow it to increase the coal exports from the Grootegeluk mine sixfold to 6.5Mt.27 Exxaro recently committed to a US$1.4 billion investment in South Africa’s coal sector, including an expansion of the Grootegeluk mine.28
Yet, as with the current wave of coal expansion in China, Russia and India29, shutting down coal mining and burning in Lephalale is exactly what must happen to avoid catastrophic climate change.
With global carbon dioxide emissions hitting a record high in 2018, we have either passed the point of no return for surpassing the two degrees Celsius boundary or will do so very soon.30 Three and four degrees of warming by the end of the century are increasingly likely. Disaster befalls us and Lephalale is the reason.
The town of Mopane is tiny: one decaying train station, a shop, apartheid-era railway houses and a school. Mopane is also right next to the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which offers minimal taxation for foreign investors. The SEZ is located 330km north of Lephalale and right on the Great North Road: the single river of tarmac stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, with western tributaries branching out to central Africa, eastern ones connecting to ports and then onto Asia.
In September 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed at estimated US$10.5 billion worth of investment agreements with China regarding the SEZ. Chinese companies will build a coal washing, coking, iron, stainless steel, ferro manganese powder, ferrochrome and limestone plant within the 60km2 SEZ. A new and dedicated 4.6GW coal-fired power station will electrify them all.31
The environmental impact assessment for the SEZ is slated for completion in the second half of 2020.