- The majority of South Africa’s coal production is in the northern province of Mpumalanga, along with 12 of the country’s 15 coal-fired power stations.
- Research carried out in the coal town of Carolina finds women here suffer ill health due to the surrounding mines, as well as sexual harassment and marginalization from formal jobs in the industry.
- Women surveyed for a report nonetheless said they fear for their future if the province’s coal industry is closed down as part of a transition to less-polluting power generation.
- They called for a greater role for women in decision-making, better education about climate change in both classrooms and communities, and for transparency over companies’ green transition plans.
MPUMALANGA, South Africa — Living surrounded by 22 coal mines, women in the small town of Carolina illustrate both the urgency and the difficulty of a just transition to clean energy in South Africa. Residents here say they endure ill health and abuse in the province’s toxic environment, but face a desolate future of unemployment and hunger if the coal mines close down.
“We will either die from this air or we will die from climate change,” one participant told researchers interviewing women for a report, “Women on coal: A feminist participatory action research on coal and climate change.”
Commissioned by watchdog group Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW), eight women researchers from Carolina gathered the views of 185 women from the communities of Silobela, Kroomkrans and Onbekend in Carolina. The 14-square-kilometer (5.4-square-mile) town, population 17,000, lies in Mpumalanga province, which infamously has “the dirtiest air in the world,” according to a 2019 Greenpeace report. The province hosts a dozen coal-fired power stations, a giant oil refinery, smelters, chemical factories, brickworks, and hundreds of mines.
As a country, South Africa is the 14th-largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, emitting more than 400 million metric tons of carbon every year, with more than half of this coming from the coal industry.
At the most recent U.N. climate change conference, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, South Africa’s government pledged to reduce its reliance on coal. Eight of the country’s coal-fired power stations are scheduled for closure by 2034. But for now, coal remains South Africa’s single biggest export.
Mpumalanga accounts for 83% of the country’s coal production, and is home to 12 of its 15 coal-fired power stations. In 2007, the government declared a 31,000-km2 (12,000-mi2) area of the province, or 40% of its total expanse, a priority area for cleaning up pollution.
Living in the heart of South Africa’s coal production exposes Carolina’s residents to respiratory diseases linked to emissions from power stations as well as from thousands of trucks hauling coal.
People here also face other health hazards. Like at many coal mines across the country, water from rain and groundwater sources reacts with soil exposed by Carolina’s mines, and the resulting acid mine drainage has contaminated the town’s water supply.
“After rainfall, if you go to our borehole, you will see the black particles from the mine and if you drink the water the community members and children become very ill with stomach aches,” a participant from Onbekend said as quoted in the SARW report.
“We are poor and the municipality does not properly maintain the stormwater drainage system,” another woman said as quoted in the report, “so when heavy rainfall occurs, the water comes into our homes which are made from corrugated iron. Also, our toilets are pit toilets and if the rain is heavy, water fills up the toilets and it overflows which can even lead to feces on the road that will make people and the animals sick.”
The much heavier rainfall caused by climate change also sees abandoned coal mines in the area fill up quickly with water, putting people at risk of injury or death from accidents, the report found.
Blasting at the open-cast mines, for breaking up the coal seams to be trucked to nearby power plants, damages homes, churches and clinics. The cracks that develop allow the walls to become waterlogged when it rains heavily.
Because the mining-affected women of Carolina perform roles in the coal-based economy that are largely informal, say the report’s authors, it’s highly likely they will also be left out of any opportunities in the new green energy economy.
Most formal jobs in the coal industry around Carolina are reserved for men; the research found that less than 2% of the women participants are formally employed by the coal mines directly. One of the reasons for this, the women told researchers, is that employment is often only secured in exchange for sexual favors. This drives women into more precarious and insecure jobs in the artisanal and small-scale mining sectors, where they outnumber men.
The testimony collected in the report illustrates how the women of Carolina are at an impasse when contemplating the end of coal mining, given that neither the government nor industry have made any firm commitments to provide them or their families with jobs in new green energy workplaces.
“I would rather deal with the climate change problems than have a hungry stomach and hungry children. If the mine closes, I don’t have a job, and my husband doesn’t have a job,” said one participant. “How will we survive?”
The participants produced their own climate manifesto, which called on the local government to increase the participation of women in decision-making. Their manifesto also seeks the national department of education to begin climate change education in classrooms and promote climate literacy for learners outside classrooms.
“We must have an education model that includes integrating indigenous and local knowledge, gender perspectives, and promote changes in lifestyles, attitudes, and behavior, ensuring climate neutrality and climate resilience of educational institutions,” the manifesto says.
They also want mining companies to disclose how they are transitioning to green energy so that their host communities can hold them accountable, and for journalists to be trained to simplify scientific findings, prevent greenwashing, discuss solutions and highlight climate inequalities, the manifesto adds.
Banner image: Coal, Mpumalanga, South Africa. Image courtesy Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority.
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