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VERLORENVLEI

Where past and present collide


by Farieda Khan
ne fine day early in November 1497, four Portuguese vessels under the command of Vasco da Gama sailed past present day Elands Bay on the Capes West Coast, eventually anchoring in a large bay they named St Helena. The Portuguese, who were trying to find a trade route to India, were disappointed by both the native inhabitants and vegetation of the region. To the European explorers, intent on finding gold and precious stones, the hunters and herders had nothing of value to trade, while the land was devoid of the cloves and cinnamon they sought. To the semi-nomadic Khoi herders however, whose home range included the semi-arid Sandveld region, the area was rich in pasturage for their sheep and cattle and well watered by a large river (later named the Berg) and the tributaries of a large vlei (Verlorenvlei) which eventually flowed into the sea at Elands Bay. The diverse fynbos yielded honey, edible roots and wild plants for their daily survival which could be further supplemented by game such as eland, drawn to the area by the extensive grasslands. At the coast, the Khoi could hunt the seals which were to be found in abundance, while the occasional whale carcass provided a feast. The semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle of the Khoi, which had existed in south-western Africa for at least 2000 years, continued largely unchanged for more than a century and a half after the first contact with Europeans. However, this would not be possible after a permanent colony had been established in Table Bay in 1652, as the settlement of this better armed group with a radically different approach to the use and possession of natural resources such as water and land, effectively spelt the beginning of the end of the way of life of these herders. This was evident in the numerous tense interactions and conflict between these two groups during expeditions to the interior conducted in order to find fertile land and other resources required by the growing settlement. Simon van der Stel (a subsequent Commander of the colony at the Cape) conducted one such expedition to the land of the Nama in 1685 in order to find and exploit the source of the copper ore which the latter had brought to the colony with them. These journeys of exploration would trigger a wave of settlement that resulted in the dispossession of the indigenous people and ultimately brought about dramatic landscape changes with vast swathes of land under cultivation and residential development. Today, and notwithstanding these changes, significant elements of our natural heritage on the West Coast, such as Verlorenvlei, remain. Verlorenvlei is a semi-estuarine lake, river and marsh system situated between the village of Redelinghuys and Elands Bay where it drains into the Atlantic Ocean. Verlorenvlei was declared a Ramsar* site in 1991 in recognition
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The semi-arid Sandveld region was rich in pasturage for the sheep and cattle of the Khoi and well watered by a large river and the tributaries of a large vlei (Verlorenvlei) which eventually flowed into the sea at Elands Bay. Photo: Jurg Studer (with kind permission from http://elephantseyegarden.blogspot.com). of its status as one of the largest wetlands on the West Coast and its importance as the habitat and breeding grounds of a rich array of birdlife, at times numbering in the thousands. The fertile Moutonshoek valley upstream from the wetlands is home to farmers and other landowners, while Elands Bay attracts surfers and visitors interested in rock art, fishing and whale watching in season, and offers the usual leisure pursuits of a seaside village. A proposed opencast tungsten mine poses a threat to the inhabitants of the valley, Verlorenvlei and Elands Bay. Bongani Minerals, headed by Trevor Pikwane and Phemelo Sehunelo, has long been interested in mining for tungsten in the valley, having made two earlier applications for prospecting rights. In 2009 the companys application to mine tungsten ore on one farm and molybdenum on another in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, was granted. The mines are being bitterly opposed by various interested and affected parties: surfers dont want contaminated water flowing into the sea; guesthouse owners and others in the hospitality sector are concerned about the negative impact posed to tourism in Elands Bay; farmworkers are unimpressed by the few hundred jobs that will be created as they fear that more will be lost; birders are worried about the impact of dust and pollution on the vlei as the mining areas would be close to the Krom Antonies River which feeds the Verlorenvlei wetland; conservationists fear the mines impact on the ecosystem in general and sensitive local vegetation in particular; and farmers are concerned about the high volume of water that will be required by the mines as well as the threat of water pollution. Given the seriousness of these concerns, it is difficult to understand how these mines will be of benefit to anyone beside the owners and, despite the assurances by the mining company to address these, anxieties remain. Critics of the mine say that since the Verlorenvlei is already under pressure as a result of the intensive agricultural activities taking place in the area, mining will place it under further pressure. Moreover, promises to rehabilitate the area after mining ring hollow, given the mining industrys appalling record in this regard. Already the countryside is littered with thousands of abandoned and derelict mines which pose serious health and environment dangers, especially from acid mine drainage. Then too, the mining company is silent on the future of an estimated 1000 mainly female seasonal farmworkers, but the loss of these jobs would have disastrous socio-economic consequences for the affected communities. In addition to these specific concerns, the proposed mine also highlights some disturbing trends which are becoming apparent at a

national level. The first of these is the apparent readiness of the responsible government department (formerly the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, now the Department of Mineral Resources) to grant licences to prospect or mine in agriculturally productive and environmentally sensitive areas (see Mathys and Kotze, Veld & Flora, June 2010). The coal mining debacle in Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga illustrates this trend. Here, despite the wetland being declared an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International and officially classified as a biodiversity hotspot, Delta Mining had nonetheless been granted coal prospecting rights in 2007 which included the right to drill boreholes to a depth of up to 50 m. The fact that Delta has subsequently withdrawn its application in the face of sustained and vigorous opposition from environmental groups, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature South Africa and the Botanical Society, does not negate the fact that a prospecting licence had been granted in the first place. Had the mine gone ahead, the extraction of coal would not only have destroyed the habitat of hundreds of bird species, but would also have threatened the grasslands and wetlands surrounding Wakkerstroom. A similar example is that of coal mining in the buffer zone adjacent to the Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo. The colliery will be located about 7 km from the parks boundaries, while the coal processing infrastructure will be located 27 km from Mapungubwe Hill, an important historical site. The park is recognized as a priority conservation area not only because of its biodiversity, but also because of its unique cultural value to the nation. The park protects the artefacts of thousands of years of human settlement, including those of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which dates from 900-1300 AD, and forms an integral part of a cultural repository of inestimable value, which was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2003. Strangely in this case, the departments involved appear to be at odds with each other, as the former Department of Minerals and Energy had not even informed the former Department of

Environmental Affairs and Tourism that it had issued a licence to Coal of Africa, an Australian company. As in Wakkerstroom, opponents of the mine (including the Mapungubwe Action Group and the Endangered Wildlife Trust) have launched a spirited fight against the mine on social, cultural and ecological grounds. A disturbing trend has emerged in the wake of some of these mining deals, viz. the political connectivity factor, i.e. the influence wielded by the powerful and politically well-connected black empowerment partners engaged in the mining sector, as evidenced by the growing trend of seeking black empowerment deals in the mining industry. One example is that of the Mvelaphanda group, which is Coal of Africas empowerment partner, and which has as its Executive Director, Vusi Mavimbela, who until recently was also Director-General in The Presidency. Another example is that of Mandlakazi Madaka, Delta Minings BEE partner, who is also the sister of President Jacob Zumas former economic adviser and current Ambassador-designate to the Russian Federation, Mandisi Mpahlwa. Political connectivity is thus a factor that needs to be taken into account by opponents of mining when considering the factors that are exerting pressure in the granting of mining licences. It is indeed unfortunate that there are those in positions of influence who are blinded by greed or motivated by short term developmental gains, and who cannot or will not understand the need to protect the foundation of our society, viz. our natural wealth. Certainly, the numerous controversies around the decisions to grant prospecting or mining licences in, or close to, environmentally sensitive areas, raise serious questions about the ability of the government to carry out its responsibility to properly balance the legitimate socio-economic needs of a growing population with the protection of the natural environment upon which we depend for our very survival. Civil society organizations therefore need to recognize that, ultimately, the issue of inappropriate and unsustainable development is a political issue one which

ABOVE: A golden rhino, just 12 cm long, from the Iron Age site of Mapungubwe is evidence of a long tradition of metalworking skills in southern Africa. It is made of a thin sheet of gold foil tacked around a core wooden carving. Photo courtesty of the Mapungubwe Collection, University of Pretoria. BELOW LEFT: European interpretations of the Khoi nomadic pastoralists they observed on the West Coast. From Olfert Dappers 1668 book Naukeurige beschryvinge der Afrikaensche gewesten published in Amsterdam by Jacob van Meurs. requires a well-planned and unequivocal political response. Verlorenvlei, despite the impact of development and the demands made by the burgeoning population in the surrounding areas, still represents a historical and cultural link with the past. Without hankering after an idyllic past in which the environment was pristine (since even hunter-gatherers and herders had an impact, however soft, on the land), Verlorenvlei continues to remind us that, like our ancestors, we are completely dependent on the continued health and abundance of our natural resources. Thus it is imperative that ordinary citizens as they have and are doing in Wakkerstroom, Mapungubwe, the Cape Winelands, Verlorenvlei and elsewhere continue to mount a robust defence of these resources. *The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

GET CONNECTED Dr Farieda Khan is an independent social and environmental historian. Contact her at fariedakhan@gmail.com. READING Auditor-General. 2009. Report of the AuditorGeneral to Parliament on a performance audit of the rehabilitation of abandoned mines at the Department of Minerals and Energy. October. Baxter, J. & M.E. Meadows. 1994. Palynological evidence for the impact of colonial settlement within lowland fynbos: a high-resolution study from the Verlorenvlei, Southwestern Cape Province, South Africa. Historical Biology, 9. Mathys, C. & I. Kotze. 2010. Misguided mining application. Veld & Flora, 96 (2). Raven-Hart, R. 1967. Before Van Riebeeck: Callers at South Africa from 1488 to 1652. Struik, Cape Town. Smith, A. 1983. Prehistoric pastoralism in the Southwestern Cape. World Archaeology, 15 (1). Venables, H. 2009. Out damned mine. Noseweek, 116. Waterhouse, G. (ed) 1932. Simon van der Stels Journal of his Expedition to Namaqualand, 1685-6. Longmans Green, London.
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