At the Front Lines of the Global Transition


Bazooka Radebe Murder and Funeral Fit South Africa’s Turmoil

An Australian developer and a tenacious Pondoland group have squared off over a plan to mine magnificent beach and mineral sand dunes on the Wild Coast of South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

An Australian developer and a tenacious Pondoland citizen group have squared off over a plan to mine magnificent beach and mineral sand dunes on the Wild Coast of South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

On Saturday, April 2, 2016 hundreds of mourners set out to a Pondo tribal settlement on South Africa’s Wild Coast to honor Sikhosiphi Radebe, the chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, who was assassinated on March 22. Radebe and several more Crisis Committee leaders spent the last decade organizing Wild Coast villages and settlers in opposing a big titanium sands beach mine along the Indian Ocean coast. The committee also opposes a new freeway that would serve mine operations that the South African government wants to build across the magnificent Wild Coast river gorges and unscarred meadows of Pondoland.

Radebe, who was more familiarly known as Bazooka, was said by his friends to be a fearless man of negotiation and peace. He was murdered by two killers, apparently hired hitmen, who’d carjacked a vehicle with two passengers. They threw the driver in the trunk, the other in the back seat, and affixed a blue light on the roof. They then drove to Bazooka’s repair shop near Port Edward, an Indian Ocean coastal town. In a brief confrontation Bazooka was shot eight times. The carjacked passengers were released unharmed. Police recovered the vehicle, but turned it back over to its owners prior to thoroughly scrubbing it of clues. The killers have not been apprehended. My report on the murder and the history that led to it for Circle of Blue is here.

The ferocious battle for control of the northern reaches of the Wild Coast has divided what the Crisis Committee asserts are the majority of the Pondo community from a minority that envision the mine and the freeway as essential to new job and business development. The battle is fierce and dangerous.  Both sides vow to fight to the death.

I visited the region in January, accompanied by Nonhle Mbuthuma and Mzamo Dlamini, two senior leaders of the Crisis Committee. Both said their lives were in danger. The homes of Crisis Committee members were targeted for nighttime attacks by armed men. Three Crisis Committee members had already been killed, they said, the victims of poisoning. The South African Police Service (SAPS), they said, were uninterested in investigating the confrontations and seemed to be acting in a manner that favored supporters of the new mine and highway.

Instances of intimidation and assault had gone uninvestigated and unprosecuted, said Mbuthuma. Police did not respond to an attack on the home of a tribal chief that involved gunfire.  The police did apprehend and are prosecuting four men involved in a December attack that resulted in serious injuries of Crisis Committee members. But that occurred only after the bleeding victims personally hobbled into the nearest police station the night of the assault to provide sworn testimony.

Nonhle Mbuthuma is a senior leaders of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. Photo/Keith Schneider

Nonhle Mbuthuma is a senior leaders of the Amadiba Crisis Committee. Photo/Keith Schneider

That the police are indifferent to opponents of the mine and the new road gained more credence on Saturday when journalists covering the funeral for The Citizen, a South African news organization, were badly beaten by a mob of Pondo residents that support the mine. The journalists said police officers were present at the assault but did not intervene to stop it. The police also confiscated the newspaper photographer’s camera. Read More

Kusile and Medupi, Conceived in Resource-Rich 20th Century, Struggle in Water-Scarce 21st

The 4,800-megawatt Kusile power station under construction in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

The 4,800-megawatt Kusile power station under construction in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMALAHLENI, South Africa – Not far from Johannesburg, set amid the corn and sunflower fields of the Highveld in Mpumalanga province, stand two unusually thick and tall candy-striped smokestacks, dozens of stout concrete support columns, and the tangled steel superstructure of the unfinished 4,800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power station.

About 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest, spread across a stretch of dry scrubland in Limpopo province, is the construction site for Kusile’s unfinished twin, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi power station.

More than a decade ago, at the turn of the 21st century, South Africa conceived the idea of building Kusile and Medupi, two of the four largest coal plants in the world. The proposal gained significant public prominence around the century’s end when South Africa’s bid to develop its own nuclear reactor design, and build several plants, was rejected by the global finance community.

Medupi and Kusile, designed with advanced water conservation cooling and pollution control systems, and due to be completed by 2014 and 2015, respectively, at a cost of $US 6 billion each, were greeted as both momentous and logical. For over a century South Africa’s economy fueled itself with the nation’s ample coal reserves, which today generate 90 percent of the nation’s electricity and 35 percent of its liquid fuel, employ tens of thousands of workers, and consume two percent of the water.

A tangle of steel and concrete describes the construction site of the Kusile power station in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

A tangle of steel and concrete describes the construction site of the Kusile power station in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

Kusile and Medupi were promoted by South Africa’s elected leaders as signature statements of the new era of liberty, the freedom to think big, and the determination to power a modern economy of opportunity that would serve all of the people. That sense of optimism and zeal was reflected in Kusile’s Zulu name, which means “new dawn.”

Over the last several years, dawn has evolved into a gathering storm. Long construction delays and escalating costs, engineering challenges, and the intensifying risk of scarce water have pushed Kusile and its sister plant into the eye of a typhoon of economic, ecological, and social disturbances engulfing South Africa. In so many ways, the troubled development of Kusile and Medupi, and the tumult enveloping South Africa’s deteriorating financial and social condition, are not just mirror images of each other.

The two plants, projected to be almost a decade late in completion and $US 20 billion or more over budget, are among the principal causes. The trouble is not simply a matter of managerial missteps. The vortex of disruption that envelops Medupi and Kusile reflects the clash between the economic and ecological operating systems of two centuries. Kusile and Medupi arguably represent the most prominent global examples of big projects that do not fit their time.

Conceived in the resource-rich, more ecologically stable, and capital-abundant turn of the century, the two plants were viewed as reasoned answers to South Africa’s growing demand for electricity, and as evidence of a new government’s capacity to execute complex industrial projects. South Africa sees its global reputation as tied to completing the two plants.

“They must finish and they will finish,” said Jacob Misimango, a 54-year-old business executive in Emalahleni who is seeking permits to start an open cast coal mine outside the city, in part to supply fuel for Kusile. “These projects have drawn the world’s attention. They have to finish. Why?

“Number one. There is a shortage of electricity. The only solution is these stations. We have coal to fuel them.

“Two. It’s important for our government to prove we can do this thing. Our national pride is at stake. Not being able to finish is demoralizing. We must prove we can finish.

“Three. There is a lot of interest on loans that we have to pay back. We need to finish to pay back those loans.”

Coal fuels 90 percent of South Africa's electricity from 17 big coal-fired power stations. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coal fuels 90 percent of South Africa’s electricity from 17 big coal-fired power stations. Photo/Keith Schneider

Big Ideas Encounter Tumult
But well over a decade after they were initially proposed, both plants, and their builder, are crashing into the project-debilitating limits of the resource-scarce, ecologically unstable, and nervous financial markets of the advancing 21st century. Said another way, the narrative of economic progress, expressed by gargantuan industrial projects and centralized management practices, is breaking apart under intense ecological pressure.

Taking its place are two new stories. The first documents the advent of new energy generating technologies – solar, wind, and small hydropower plants – that are less expensive, consume smaller amounts of critical resources, especially water, and take a year or two instead of a decade to build. From 2010 to 2015, South Africa brought 1,900 megawatts of renewable energy online – most of it wind and solar generated – at an average cost of around $US 1.5 million per megawatt.

Wind and solar generating stations, according to the South Africa Department of Energy, now add roughly 1,000 megawatts of new generating capacity annually to the national grid, take up less space and cause much less damage to the land than coal mines, and use scant amounts of water. The new plants also take 15 months to two years to complete, says a Department of Energy report made public late last year, and produce power at about half the current estimate of the cost of electricity that will be generated by Medupi and Kusile.

The second and more disturbing story describes the pernicious stubbornness of global financiers and industrial developers who persist in building immense energy and mining projects that cause severe environmental dissolution and financial distress. Building mega energy projects, never easy, is more difficult now in South Africa and around the world because evidence of permanent harm to the environment and communities also is activating a swarm of civic rebellions to halt construction.

“Medupi and Kusile are examples of large-scale mega infrastructure projects that countries see as the basis of a development model that started after World War II,” said Janet Redman, director of the Climate Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and an authority on World Bank loan programs. “Projects this large are seen as transformational. They cost a lot. They employ a lot of people. Their effects are meant to be big. But it’s a model that doesn’t make much sense now. “Large projects, like Medupi and Kusile, are so vulnerable to delay, to land disputes, to disputes over water supply, to changes in markets, and to big cost overruns. Yet big institutions continue to support them.”

— Keith Schneider

Read the full report at Circle of Blue here.

See all of the reports from South Africa at the Choke Point: South Africa page at Circle of Blue.

South Africa Locks Onto Coal Despite Water Risks, Grim Market Trends

Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider

Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider

VRYHEID, South Africa — The chilly highland valleys of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, where coal mining and agriculture have coexisted since the late 19th century, have never been a geography of unfolding uncertainty, mystery, and menace like they are today.

South Africa’s allegiance to coal mining and coal-fired power generation in an era of rising concern about water supply and quality, and weakening national and global demand, is causing a furor in the country’s mining sector, affecting the financial community, and tearing holes in President Jacob Zuma’s veil of privilege and scandal.

The national turmoil, and a number of distinct regional conditions are tilting the balance of benefits and risks against new coal development in this area, say many residents. A deep two-year drought, the worst ever experienced in northern KwaZulu-Natal, emptied the drinking water reservoirs of Vryheid and nearby Paulpietersburg late last year. Thousands of town residents line up every morning to fill buckets with fresh water transported by tanker trucks from sources as far away as Pongola, a farm town set by the river of the same name that is 132 kilometers (82 miles) east of here.

More Mystery
Outside the hill towns, where springs and deep wells are still active, one coal company is drawing nearer to gaining a license to mine a new coal seam near Paulpietersburg. At least nine other companies have been quietly nosing around the steep slopes of the area’s tabletop mountains for unmined reserves. Markets for new reserves are thought to include coal-fired power stations in neighboring Mpumalanga province, and for export. Richards Bay, South Africa’s primary export shipping terminal, is 214 kilometers east (133 miles).

Senior managers of the South Africa Department of Mineral Resources declined to be interviewed for this article. The department’s weak public involvement mechanisms and Web site make it difficult for the citizens to follow new licensing applications. Farmers, acutely anxious that pollution from new coal mines could contaminate their water, have responded by establishing a new advocacy group, the Pongola River Catchment Protection Association, to keep abreast of mining activity on the ground, and to oppose new mineral development. On an overcast day earlier this year Mattie Beukes, a retired sugar cane grower, and Johann Boonzaaier, who manages the big water supply and transport network for Pongola’s sugar cane plantations, toured the quiet highland valleys to talk with farmers and civic officials. Their goal was to gain intelligence about any new coal mining activity. The fact-finding trip turned up no fresh evidence of new mines, but the region around Utrecht and Vryheid is alive with mining proposals not yet acted on.

Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider

Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider

“What we think about is how mining affects our water supply,” said Boonzaaier, the chief executive of the Impala Water Users Association, which supplies water to 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of sugar cane plantations in a dry valley closer to the Indian Ocean. “Any mine pollution from here, on the highlands, could flow to our water downstream.”

More Threat
Coal mining also mixes with another threat in this region. Like a cold fog, the sense of regional apprehension settling over the KwaZulu-Natal highlands grew more gloomy two years ago when Nico and Marcia Lens were murdered at their grain and cattle farm tucked into a highland slope outside Paulpietersburg. The unsolved murders of the 62-year-old farmer and his 52-year-old wife draw agriculture and energy together in an unexpected way. The Lens’ empty and unsold white farmhouse, which lingers barely visible beneath untrimmed trees at the end of a long dirt drive, lies close to the 2,000-hectare (4,942- acres) underground coal mine that Tholie Logistics, a small Johannesburg mineral company, proposes to develop.

The murders and mining applications have put farmers and other residents of this region on high alert for their personal security, and the safety of the land.

“No one knows why it happened. They were good people,” said Beukes, who started a new career last year as a land and water conservationist. “People are a little nervous. Things are happening here that make you worry. New coal mining in this area. It’s not a good use for the land.”

That sentiment is gaining more credibility in KwaZulu-Natal and across contemporary South Africa. Though there are a small group of out-of-work miners, some government officials, and a handful of mining executives that view new coal production in KwaZulu-Natal as a boost to job growth and local treasuries, that it is by no means a consensus opinion. In interviews with farmers and local residents, white and black, people objected to new mining.

— Keith Schneider

Read the full report at Circle of Blue here.

See all of the reports from South Africa at the Choke Point: South Africa page at Circle of Blue.

South Africa’s Impending Crop Failure

Nduku Msimanga, a tractor driver on the Horn family sugar plantation in Pongola, fills a water storage tank and waits for a break in South Africa's ferocious drought. Photo/Keith Schneider

Nduku Msimanga, a tractor driver on the Horn family sugar plantation in Pongola, fills a water storage tank and waits for a break in South Africa’s ferocious drought. Photo/Keith Schneider

PONGOLA, South Africa — On the last Friday of January, payday on the sugar cane farms of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, a hot sun beat down on the red clay of Cobus Horn’s equipment yard. Nduku Msimanga, taut and muscled as a welterweight boxer, waited there with three other tractor drivers to receive unusually meager pay stubs.

Msimanga, who is 33 years old, supports two teenage boys, a seven-year-old girl, and his wife on the wages he earns on the Horn family’s sugar cane farm just outside Pongola. He’s worked on the Horn farm since he was 23. His pay, usually about 5,000 rand a month ($US 300 at current exchange rates), is tiny by western standards but above average on South African farms.

This year Msimanga’s pay stubs are half that, a reflection of just how deeply South Africa’s worst drought in 34 years is attacking the country’s nearly $US 9 billion farm economy. The drought is also an ecological force multiplier that is aggravating virulent trends in joblessness, crime, and social stability.

It could hardly have developed at a worse moment in this thunderously beautiful, water-parched, and economically reeling nation of 55 million residents at the bottom of Africa. Since December, following an abrupt shake-up in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet and sliding commodity prices, the South African rand dropped in value to its lowest level ever. It is now worth barely more than 6 U.S. cents. The business confidence index fell to its worst-ever rating. Agronomists project that South Africa could sustain the biggest crop failure in its history. Grain harvests, usually formidable enough to support big export markets, are likely to be half the normal total, prompting expensive imports. Food price increases are anticipated to reach 25 percent. Hundreds of farm workers are being laid off (called “retrenched” here) in KwaZulu-Natal and the four other provinces declared drought disaster areas, where most of the country’s major row crops are produced.

Cobus Horn and his family in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

Cobus Horn and his family in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

The layoffs and reductions in hours are aggravating the country’s terrible joblessness. South Africa’s 35,000 big commercial farms account for more than 650,000 jobs, seven percent of the country’s working adults. That’s more than South Africa’s mines employ, according to Statistics SA. At least 1 million other South Africans work full or part-time on the 1.3 million small and subsistence farms. As heat and dry weather kill crops, workers are being forced from the fields. More than one in three working age adults are now unemployed.

The endowment of optimism and progress that South Africans embraced at the start of the new multi-racial elections and the formal end of Apartheid in 1994 has dissolved into a period of deepening national economic and social stress. Read More

Robben Island’s Long Shadow of Justice

Message that greets visitors to Robben Island. Photo/Keith Schneider

Message that greets visitors to Robben Island. Photo/Keith Schneider

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Barack Obama, America’s first black president, twice crossed the cold and deep 9-mile channel that lies between this magnificent coastal city and Robben Island, where South Africa imprisoned its first black president, Nelson Mandela.

The last time Obama stood in the stone cell blocks and peered out of the barred windows was in June 2013, during a presidential visit to South Africa. Before that, in his first visit in 2006, Obama was a first-term United States senator.

History sits heavy on this rocky, wind-tortured island of scrub and penguin nesting grounds, as it does in all of South Africa. Along with Mandela, South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, also was imprisoned here for crimes meant to foster a national movement to end white control over the black majority. Robben Island, shadowed by the immensity of Table Mountain and within easy reach of Africa’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city, may be the oddest presidential training ground in human history.

South Africa, though, is like that. The glory of the natural landscape is like a blindingly beautiful drape hiding the ragged, fractured geography of South Africa’s culture and economy. Having thrown off the racist white government in 1994, and elected Mandela and other capable black leaders to positions of authority, South Africa seemed to surge forward. Schools, housing, transportation, access to medical care, and incomes improved.

That momentum slowed earlier this decade and lately may have been jarred into reverse. Scandals and corruption accusations surround Zuma and his government, which has been weakened by cabinet shake-ups. A constitutional crisis is unfolding prompted by the president’s use of public funds to enhance his private estate. The rand, now worth barely 6 U.S. cents, has slid to its lowest value ever. Unemployment has soared to more than 35 percent. Economic growth may slip into negative numbers this year. A deep two-year drought could lead to the biggest crop failure in South Africa’s history, leading to a 25 percent increase in the price of food, and perhaps food shortages. Crime is ferocious everywhere. Read More