Environmental Politics: Revisiting Salgaocar and reopening of Ngwenya Mine

Up in that crocodile-shaped mountain, there used to be some digging of ore for the country's benefit. That mountain is now a site of plunder. And only the king and his accomplices get the loot.

Exactly 10 years ago, Salgaocar, a company owned by Malaysian businessman Shanmuga “Shan” Rethenam – then a “personal friend” to King Mswati III – sat in an environmental scoping meeting to finalise small details in preparation for mining millions of iron ore tonnes at Ngwenya. In this meeting, local stakeholders were told of the environmental issues surrounding reprocessing the "overburden" and "waste dumps” left behind after Anglo American stopped its mining operations in the 1970s. Two weeks later, the government signed a letter of commitment with Salgaocar and, exactly 13 days after that, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was published, setting the scene for the subsequent political, economic, environmental and legal drama that followed. This drama pitted the king on the one hand and his friend-turned-nemesis Rethenam on the other. Ten years later a new company, Vuka Lilanga Minerals PTY LTD, wants to reopen the mine amid fears it could very well be a Slgaocar 2.0. If indeed Ngwenya will open under new ownership then what lessons from the past does it carry with it today especially given the environmental, political and economic mess left by Salgaocar? After all, by revisiting the Salgaocar mining deal ten years later we heed to Czech novelist and writer Milan Kundera who cautioned that the struggle of man against power is at the same time a struggle of memory against forgetting.

A bit of history

Situated on the northwest border of eSwatini, on Bomvu Ridge (a series of mountains that connect to Bulembu and Barberton), the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognises Ngwenya mine as “one of the oldest mines in the world” and a potential heritage site. Historically, Ngwenya was our early ancestors’ hematite and ochre mine at least 43 000 years ago. This was way before the digging of iron ore began in 1964.

It was, however, only in 1982 that the mining area became a protected site when it was incorporated into the Malolotja Nature Reserve. And, it was only in 2008 that the Swaziland National Trust Commission (SNTC), working with the Swaziland National Museum, applied to UNESCO to have the site declared a World Heritage Site. Given this, the Mines and Minerals Act of 2011 therefore proscribed any mining on areas ascribed to the protection of flora and fauna or those located within conservation sites.

Despite this, then Minister of Commerce and Trade Jabulile Mashwama suggested that the economic value of the site as a mining location was higher than that of tourism – ignoring, almost entirely, the health and environmental impacts of this project. So how did this world-recognised historic site become a mining ground for Salgaocar and, now, Vukalilanga?

The Mining and Minerals Act provides some clues. The Act gives the iNgwenyama (King) the responsibility to hold mineral rights “in trust for the Swazi nation”. It also prescribes “royalties at a rate of three percent per annum” as well as an income tax that adds up to 27.5%. As if that is not enough, the Act goes on to say the king “shall acquire 25% shareholding without any monetary consideration in a large-scale mining project", while the "government" gets 25%.

Clearly, there was always something to be gained by the country’s powers that be. The Act itself was promulgated, it would seem, with them in mind. Where mining activity came with such benefits as a private jet from “the king’s personal friend” then the process was sure to be expedited, screw the environment.

Proposed reopening of Ngwenya Mine

Yes, the Ngwenya Mine is reopening, but will now be operated by a company called Vuka Lilanga Minerals.

This company claims to have been established in 2017 with a focus on Iron Ore exploration and production. Their website is short on detail and offers nothing substantive to get a better insight into the new players in the field. It is however interesting that there has been no consultations proposed for this project this time around. The only plausible explanation is that this might be because the Minerals Management Board simply transferred the mining rights from Salgaocar to this company.

While Vuka Lilanga claims to be Swazi owned, a quick look at the EIA submitted to the Environmental Authority reveals that 75% of the company’s four-person senior management team are migrants. In fact, these were the exact people at the forefront of Salgaocar’s mining operations from 2011 till 2014. Meanwhile, the six-member middle management is also majority migrants, with only two of them being eSwatini citizens. This begs the question: is Vukalilanga a local company or is this just a rebranded version of Salgaocar?

Perhaps the biggest question is how does this supposedly new company hope to deal with the very issues that were at the centre of controversy during the Salgaocar era? In particular, how will the company tackle the environmental issues that were ignored by Salgaocar? For example, how will they deal with the chemical use and deposits, water use and contamination?

In the originally proposed project, 8 288 cubic metres of water were required for a single day’s processing yet the figure advanced by Vukalilanga in the EIA gives an hourly requirement of 3 000 cubic metres of water – strategically leaving out the number of hours a day under which this will be the case. This is important given the current state of water access in the country. Unstable water supply is a serious problem in the country. Even recent State of the Environment report highlights that the aftermath of the 2016/2017 droughts led to the Eswatini Water Services Corporation experiencing challenges where most of the water treatment plants did not have adequate raw water sources. Additionally, the water quality in water bodies and dams were affected because water quality deteriorated with decline in volume.

These changing water patterns in the country therefore require strategic interventions at least according to the proposals from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy in 2018. These interventions include water resources development, resources management; water resources information management; water supply and sanitation service provision from among other things.

Meanwhile, Vukalilanga sanitises itself by claiming the water they will use will be recycled and that it will come from a small dam at the mine’s site. This disregards the fact that that water is not enough. In any event, how will they manage to recycle any water now that Salgaocar failed? How does this utilisation work with the recommendations made by the Ministry of Natural Resources?

Perhaps the biggest challenge the Vukalilanga will have to explicitly address is the protection of the area’s flora and fauna. It is good, however, that they acknowledge that the nature reserve is a “significant sanctuary”. At least we are assured the company is aware of the implications of their project on this “sanctuary”.

After all, anything else will be a Salgaocar 2.0. In addressing air pollution, for example, the EIA states: “The area sources of activity are generally in the valley of a hilly area… hence the fast flow of particulates may also be restricted by the mountains surrounding the operations area.” Will this be the justification of mediocre air pollution management practices?

Ten years after Salgaocar

Ten years ago the nation woke up to screaming headlines that the government had given Salgaocar a 7-year license to mine Ngwenya iron ore. Environmentalists and the public were left wondering if all the concerns raised by residents had been addressed. What of those raised by the Environmental Authority and the Eswatini Water Services Corporation who feared this mine was too close to a major water source (Hawane Dam)? In line with international standards and local Environmental Management Act, a project of such a nature had to go through the Environmental Impacts process that produces an EIA for review. Where the EIA – prepared by a consulting company that was questionable in itself – was noted to contain discrepancies, the Environmental Authority quickly suggested, through then Director Steven Zuke, that issues previously flagged had been taken care of. Residents had worries about waste from the project and its implications on the community and water sources.

According to the Environmental Audit, Assessment and Review Regulations of 2000, once such a scoping meeting has been conducted, those responsible for a project must submit – to the Eswatini Environmental Authority – a detailed Comprehensive Mitigation Plan that tackles all of these issues. Under normal circumstances, this process would take some time as Salgoarcar researched possible socio-environmental and scientific solutions. Legally, this would be a draft that once submitted to the environmental authority, would require approval for the final version to be produced. The regulations state that no project can be initiated until all the processes of the Environmental Impact process have been undertaken and approved by the authority.

However, two weeks after the initial scoping meeting, the government of Eswatini signed a letter of commitment with Salgaocar before an environmental impact assessment was published. Two weeks later, a shallow Environmental Impact Assessment written by Dumile Nhlengethwa – a high school teacher – was published. How did this breach in legislated environmental regulation happen? As it became evident later, the EIA was only a formality. This formality did not address the concerns of the community nor the general implications of chemicals on the areas surrounding the mine. As to how Zuke and the Minister of Commerce and Trade at that time suggest that all processes and protocols had been ethically observed beats every sane person.

In response to the flagged aspects of the EIA Zuke suggested the 'mitigation measures provided in the report on water pollution [was] sufficient to address any possible processing activities.’ The EIA, which further failed to address the high-level solution to the acidity caused by the chemicals was d/eemed sufficient by the Environmental Authority, but was it? Zuke further suggested that only lime and no other chemicals would be used for iron ore screening. This could not have been further from the truth. The implications of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) were not sufficiently considered in the Impact Assessment and inconclusive mitigation plans were in place. A mining site, in a nature reserve, while ignoring significant factors in the chemicals produced from the iron ore mining process; In what world could this travesty be allowed? Well, where the King had 25% at stake, the legislative process could be ignored.


As Ngwenya prepares to be opened again amid new players, questions still linger, given the experience of Salgaocar, how regulators and policymakers will find a nexus between the environmental concerns and the interest of the Ingwenyama? This is because the Mines and Minerals Act of 2011, the Environmental Management Act of 2002, the Environmental Authority and the National Trust Commission Act of 1972 all fall flat where the King’s interests meet. After all, the “iNgwenyama” remains responsible for the overall management and any board serves as an advisory to him.

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