Psychological Report released highlighting the mental health harm to communities living next to open-cast coal mine

On 25 October 2022, we held a webinar which released the report entitled ‘Everything for Dust: the Collective Trauma of Opencast Coal Mining on Residents in Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal’, with the content of the report as well as the line-up of speakers, attracting participants from South Africa and around the world.

When we began working with our clients on the border of Tendele Coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal in 2016, we could not help but notice their extreme feeling of hopelessness and fear. A sense of brokenness prevailed. There was, and continues to be, a desperate need for awareness of and assistance given to those in psychological need. In many areas of the country worldwide, there have been reports and discussions about the physical impacts of coal mining. What has been less dealt with, and not much at all in South Africa is the psychological impact of coal mining on mining-impacted communities.

We can all acknowledge that during the turmoil of the Covid pandemic, we realised how little mental health had been factored into the lockdown plans until the psychological repercussions of being locked into our homes, cut off from social connections, and living in fear had on people became very clear and impossible to ignore. It was something we all felt personally. And we began talking about it. Perhaps the one positive outcome of Covid was the potential for better engagement around mental health. 

While we at ALL RISE knew that an assessment of our clients’ mental health was needed to ascertain what could be done to help them, Dr Barnwell’s findings were worse than we expected. 

Section 24 of the SA Constitution speaks to our right to an environment that is not harmful to our health or well-being. This includes our mental health and well-being.  In reading the findings of Dr Garret Barnwell, it is essential to also keep in mind that everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected in terms of Section 10 of the Constitution. In terms of section 11, everyone has the right to life. There are many more human rights in the Bill of Rights that intersect with mental health; none are more so highlighted than in the report we are about to discuss.

Dr Garret Barnwell, Dr Dineo Skosana, Dr Asanda Benya and Dr Michael Edelstein presented on loss, psycho-social impact, the cultural significance of burial in the Zulu culture, environmental harm, and they all agreed that the impacts of mining on communities are extremely harmful, on-going and collective. Dr Barnwell’s report was specific to the people he interviewed and covered the historical and current trauma that the participants had and continue to experience due to their proximity to open-cast coal mining. One of the causes of the mental distress discussed in detail during the webinar was institutional betrayal, where those who are responsible for protecting communities (e.g., Tendele mine, government, traditional leadership and local authorities) are perceived as perpetrating wrongdoings, neglecting or scapegoating those who raise complaints and are perceived as not responding appropriately to the (chronic) traumatic and stressful incidents.

Ironically, while the findings of institutional betrayal and related trauma were being discussed, real-time examples were taking place on the Q&A forum online (although only visible to the speakers). About 6 of the webinar participants from Tendele mine, mine unions, traditional leadership and the Zululand Anthracite Colliery were sending a slew of messages – making it clear that reports and conversations that do not support a pro-mining narrative would not be tolerated. Not one expressed any concern for the well-being of the people who participated in the report.  One person accused the community person who presented in the webinar of not being from the community and of lying.  

In commenting on Dr Barnwell’s report, Dr Skosana referred to her research in the same community – the cultural significance of graves and the horror that occurs when deceased loved ones are exhumed and reburied during relocation processes. Dr Benya spoke about her research done in relation to mines (including Tendele), violence and gender – with women being so significantly burdened. Dr Edelstein’s fifty-year career in psycho-social impacts, including his report on Somkhele in 2018, brought the discussion together and concluded with the high praise of All Rise as being ‘out in front’ in the field of psycho-social impact assessments. 

Without having ever had any of these great intellectuals in a virtual room together before, it was amazing to hear how their findings reflected each other’s and how they responded in unison to questions put to them.

A very emotional presentation by a community member who shared her real experiences of the trauma she and her family have experienced living on the boundary of Tendele coal mine hammered home the reality of Dr Barwell’s findings. The community member referred to herself with a made-up name to protect her identity for fear of reprisal. The murder of Fikile Ntshangase two years ago is never far from our minds. 

We are enormously grateful to Dr Garret Barnwell for his in-depth study, sensitive approach to our clients, and highly professional manner. His report, with its hard-hitting truths, is the starting point for the conversation that must continue about the impact of mining on the mental health of mining-impacted communities. Indeed, as All Rise, we hope that the findings of this study bring us closer to securing justice for the community in which the study was done and bring much-needed awareness to the deficiencies in our healthcare systems and environmental management systems that need to be addressed. 

On a side note, there was something positive (and ancillary) that Dr Barnwell expressed after his study, which we, as lawyers, did not anticipate. He observed that All Rise plays a fundamental role in healing the psychological wounds of its clients. Why? Because if collective trauma is associated with ongoing transgressions of human rights, then justice is essential to psychological well-being, and access to justice is something that we have provided. Given the ongoing hardships our clients face, this was good to know.

We thank each speaker for taking time out of their busy schedules to be with us on the panel, adding their own research or story, insight, and experience. We sincerely thank those who took part in the psychological study and were willing to share their experiences to raise awareness of this critical but often neglected issue of mental health. 

  • Dr Barnwell’s report is uploaded to our All Rise website and may be accessed here.

The Webinar recording may be accessed here

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