Myn Verdwyn

Published on June 3, 2009 by in General, Verlorenvlei Coalition


(Written by Roderick Freemantle).


Not many people know this, but a rich deposit of tungsten and molybdenum has been discovered in the Moutonshoek valley on the eastern slopes of the Piketberg Mountains. Sound bites reaching the “interested and affected parties” ears through the static of spin reveal that the extraction of these minerals will involve a monumental enterprise that amounts to the digging of a huge hole in the ground, 200m deep with a mouth covering up to 50 hectares. To exhaust these deposits the proposed mining operation will continue 24 hours every day for about 20 years. The site for this proposed excavation happens to be precisely where fresh water, draining from the Piketberg becomes what is quaintly known as the “Krom Antonies River”, the principal source of fresh water, above and below ground, that feeds into one of the most important (and most sensitive) wetlands in the world: the Velorenvlei.

Extraction of tungsten from the raw earth is only possible by chemical methods for, by its nature, it is incredibly resistant to heat and has a melting point of over 3 000 degrees Celsius. The extraction process depends on the use of massive amounts of water mixed with highly poisonous chemicals and the waste is dumped onto what eventually becomes the enduring legacy of the mine long after the last ounce of ore has been sold and the miners gone from the valley: slimes dams. Anyone who grew up on the Reef, as I did, will know that slimes dams have an alien and eerie quality about them; nothing lives on or near them and the caustic earth smells like bile.

On the 30th of April 2009, “interested and affected parties” were called to a presentation by consultants employed by the mining company to hear about the proposed mine, the process that still has to be followed before it is approved and, as a sort of tail stuck haphazardly onto the bare behind of the agenda, to engage in “Open Discussion”. The following is an unofficial account of the meeting from the point of view of just one of those “interested and affected parties”; one who sat there mesmerised as if in a surreal nightmare and one who eventually drove home from the meeting into the breathtaking beauty of a Sandveld sunset, saddened almost to the point of utter despair.

To start with, the tractor shed in which the meeting took place was not easy to find, but someone, far more “interested and affected” than I, had thankfully put up a poster indicating the turnoff from the main road from Elands Bay to Piketberg. At the gate to the venue there was a rousing welcome by a placard-waving crowd. In spite of a gloomy mood and a dark sense of foreboding it was wonderful to see the irrepressible spirit and wry humour of these people shining as brightly as ever in slogans such as “Myn Verdwyn!” and to see smiles on faces, etched deeply with marks from generations of hardship.

In the dimly lit, draughty shed facing a palpably hostile audience of spectral shadows, a geological consultant with the Dickensian name of Aubrey Withers stood beside a rickety screen and plunged, with the body-language of a man fighting off a swarm of bees, into his agenda. This “plunging” approach characterised the whole of his subsequent delivery and he made the most fundamental mistake that so many so-called “facilitators” make of trying to herd a crowd through a prepared agenda and of tacking the most important item, like an afterthought, onto the end. He either failed to realise or deliberately ignored the fact that every “interested and affected” person there had given up a day’s work, travelled in some cases considerable distances and spent months, even years, preparing for this moment. It did not appear to concern him that not one person there was in the slightest bit interested in what he constantly referred to as “The Process”. He doggedly forged ahead as if this whole gathering was simply a formality, a deferential nod to the lawmakers, on the road to an inevitable conclusion: that this mining operation would inevitably go ahead. In one of his many tasteless blunders, he said almost desperately at some point: “If this mining company does not succeed, there are [I forget how many] others waiting to take its place.” At the outset, Mr Withers not only alienated the crowd and infuriated them, he did something far worse, far more unforgivable: he made them feel hopeless and impotent.

Of course, the meeting was frustrating, even pointless, except for the fact that the record will state that it took place, that “The Process” was being followed and that “interested and affected parties” had answered a roll-call of attendance.

That, on the face of it, is all that happened. But the reason I feel compelled to write this, and despite the fact that I have no idea what to do with it when it is written, is that the meeting was far more than a formality, a very great deal more. It was a monumentally important moment in the history of this country, not a week after a historic election, when to do the right thing can be publicly shoved aside by the relentless force of the inevitable and when conscience is ignored in the presence of the brutal power of greed.

Of all the statements made at the meeting, articulate or otherwise, emotionally unstable or dignified, one or two stand out in memory. At one point, a farmer from the area stood up and said what, in reflection afterwards, seemed to me to be the most poignant and significant statement of the whole gathering. He explained that he ran an operation that employed hundreds of people, that his investment (and therefore, personal risk) ran into tens of millions. That, in itself was a huge shock to me personally, particularly since I can barely afford to employ two part-time workers and my work as an artist produces nothing as substantial or as obviously nourishing as one single potato. I was humbled by his introduction and his credentials made me feel rather pathetic. But what he went on to say was the real kicker: he said (and I paraphrase) that although the actual mine, if it eventually went ahead, would cause untold damage to the area and to the livelihood of local residents, even the suggestion of the mine had already just about ruined him. He said perceptions had already changed to the extent that the loans upon which his whole enterprise depended had been refused on the grounds that his farm would not be viable if a mining operation on that scale, with its detrimental effects to the land and water on his farm was allowed to proceed.

This single, quietly delivered, statement kept me awake all night and a metaphor formed itself in the mind as the thoughts churned away through the hours. It seemed to me that this land, which those of us who have chosen to live here love like a mistress and which those of us who have lived here for millennia love like a mother, had been suddenly and tragically diagnosed with a fatal disease, something like cancer. And that it was not the mine itself; the abominable fact of a huge, poisonous hole in “her” body, which distressed us so much as the diagnosis itself; the appalling idea that such a terrible thing had happened to our beloved mistress and mother.

In the past year alone, no less than four intimate friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer, one of whom died before he reached his 60th year and the other three have fought the disease with varying degrees of success. When this happens, I mean, when the news of the diagnosis is announced, everything changes; the whole world looks and feels different and the spectre of mortality falls like a shadow over every little simple act of ordinary existence.

And so it is with this proposed mine: a shadow has fallen over the valley; a shadow of disease and death.

I stayed at the meeting nearly to the end, determined not to miss anything for I had no idea what to do or how I might help. My own resources are, as I said before, “pathetically” limited and I was searching for a clue, some hint of how I might be able to do something personally to put an end to, or at least to slow down, this ghastly “Process”. At this point a huge bull of a man, apparently a director of the mining company, stood up and said something that snapped my straining nerves like a dry twig. What he said was, in itself quite innocuous, even quite childishly endearing if it wasn’t for the emotional context in which it was said and the crass blindness it demonstrated to the plight of every “affected” person there. He said: “… and anyway, just think, when we build a dam, you’ll be able to ski on it!”

As I said, something snapped in me. He was still standing up and I was sitting right next to him. I got up and walked out of the shed, brushing past him in such haste that his elbow jabbed inadvertently into my chest and he instinctively backed away to let me through. It was an incredibly powerful moment, an instant of connection that said, without words, as much as I felt capable of saying at the time. It said, “Get out of my way, you callous bastard”, or words to that effect. It was nothing, a moment that intended and gained nothing, but it was what I had come there to say and which, until that gesture accidentally prompted it, I felt horribly incapable of saying.

So now that the patient has been diagnosed (still at this stage with a “possible” life-threatening disease), and now that the full extent and nature of the disease has been explained to us “interested and affected parties” — the “loved ones” or “close relatives” in other words — we have to live with the fact that nothing will ever be the same in this exquisite “veloren” valley ever again. The beast has sniffed its prey. If this mining group does not succeed in “The Process”, others surely will, for the scent of billions has now spread abroad and many unseen snouts are, at this very moment, snuffling at the breeze.

It would be ridiculous not to hope, silly as it seems — like jotting in some numbers on a lottery form against almost impossible odds — that somehow this nightmare will pass. We cannot face each day without the hope that the monstrous idea of an open-cast mine dug right in the crutch of a major source of life-giving water will fade like all nightmares eventually do. But there is nothing else that we can do, not really. We will jostle and stall “The Process” with every resource that we have at our disposal. We will become activists against our own placid and naturally forgiving natures. We will moan and complain and explode in anger or speak, like Sandra Prinsloo did at the meeting with heartbreaking dignity and restraint, but all of us will secretly hope that these brutal rapists will just go away. Not somewhere else, just away. Forever. But that is the nature of hope: we all know that it is not strictly reasonable, but it is a quality of our human condition that we are loathe to forego.

One Response to “Myn Verdwyn”

  1. kim says:

    Thanks for an amazing piece Roderick. You have captured the essence of what it is to be an “interested and affected party” in every horrible EIA process unfolding across our beautiful landscapes. Thank you for writing this, it moved me.

    And good luck with the battle ahead! Don’t give up.

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