Copper boom sparks conflict between mine and residents of Northern Cape town
We visited Concordia, where 29 people were arrested for protesting against a mine
Conflict has erupted in Concordia, a small and rocky town of 5,000 people in the copper district of the Northern Cape.
Copper 360, a JSE-listed mining company, has started mining in the town through its subsidiary Shirley Hayes-IPK (SHiP). Over the next few years, the company intends to extract thousands of tonnes of copper. This comes after Copper 360 announced a massive increase in its copper resources in the area.
Right on the edge of the town is Wheal Julia, an old copper mine that has been resurrected by SHiP.
Faced with their quiet way of life being upended, many oppose the mining taking place so close to their doorsteps. Moreover, few Concordia residents expect to get employment from the mine.
Concordia is a Namaqualand “kleindorpie” (small town). It’s a 20km drive north-east of Springbok. The surroundings are rocky, sparse and semi-arid — except during the brief spring flower season when Namaqualand is blanketed by colourful wildflowers.
The town used to be reserved for coloured people under apartheid. Nearly everyone here speaks Afrikaans as a first language.
Much like the surrounding towns of Okiep, Springbok, and Nababeep, the town has a rich mining history. The entire Nama Khoi Municipality is centred around mining, which is the largest economic contributor and employs many of the residents of the municipality.
About a five-minute drive from the town, on a dirt road, is Jubilee mine, owned by SHiP. Here, on 9 August, community members protested outside one of the mine’s gates. Reports are conflicting, but apparently stones were thrown between Concordia residents and mineworkers, most of whom are from Nababeep, about 20km away. Nevertheless, by the afternoon everyone went home.
Then in the evening police officers went door-to-door in the town and arrested 29 people in their homes. Northern Cape police spokesperson Timothy Sam said that they were “investigating a case of public violence following the arrest[s]”.
Shereen Fortuin, a Concordia community leader, said she was arrested outside her home at about 10pm on the day of the protest. A few people were jailed at Springbok, a few at Steinkopf, and the rest at Nababeep.
“People who came and did nothing were arrested. That’s the way things are done,” said Fortuin.
The arrested were released the next day.
Residents oppose the mining for several reasons. Some are convinced the company is mining illegally, but the company says that it has complied with legislation. It is the proximity of the mining to their homes that is the root of their concerns, and what this will mean for the future of the town.
“They’re not coming to the table to tell us what is going on,” said Fortuin. Though the company provided the community with mining permits issued from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), residents say there has been a lack of consultation. They are worried about the intensity of the mining activity over an area which covers just over 19,000 hectares.
At 69-years old, Billy Cloete was the oldest person arrested.
Cloete lives alone in his house in the centre of the town. The long cobblestone road to Cloete’s front yard was covered in flowers when we visited him. He worked in mining for 43 years. By the time he retired he had worked his way up to being a superintendent. More than once Cloete insisted that he is “not against development”.
“It’s about the way they want to mine,” he said. “When I saw the areas where they want to work … I can’t let this happen to the people here.”
He said he worked with explosives frequently throughout his mining career and explosives used in mines today are a lot more advanced than he used, he said, with a blast radius of 500m. “Mining is a fun thing. But it is also a very dangerous thing,” he said.
He worries about pollution, the gases the explosives might let off, and whether people’s homes will be damaged. “I don’t have long to live anymore. I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about our next generation.”
“I’m very against the way they are doing things here in Concordia. The community is not being recognised.”
Environmental Impact Assessment
Copper 360 and SHiP’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notes the use of explosives and the “potential risk” of “dust, noise and vibration associated with blasting of ore underground at two mines, Rietberg and Homeep, and in the open pit at Jubilee. All three of these mines are close to Concordia.
The EIA also notes potential pollution of groundwater that the mines would then have to treat.
The EIA states that the company will employ 178 people directly and will benefit at least 20 local businesses.
The area has a rich history of commercial copper mining stretching back to the 1800s. Commercial mining started in the 1860s. For many years copper ore was transported by the Cape Copper Company on the Namaqualand railway running from the towns of Okiep, Concordia and Nababeep (known today as the Okiep Copper District) to Port Nolloth harbour on the West Coast.
In the 1940s the Okiep Copper Company (OCC) started operating and extracted ore at various sites during a copper boom. One such historic mine is Wheal Julia, located in Concordia. Jubilee, where the protest took place on 9 August, is also a historic mine.
Right opposite the Wheal Julia mine, on the outskirts of Concordia, lives Mina Henn in a large eight-bedroom house that she and her husband moved to in 1978. She recalled how children stole apricots from the tree at the front of the house. The tree is still there.
“My father worked for the mines. My husband worked for the mines … You could say the mines have always been the only big jobs,” said Henn.
Nevertheless Henn is worried about how her house will be affected by mining at Wheal Julia and whether it will become dangerous for her and her family to live here much longer.
Arthur Cloete, a cattle farmer, told us that Namaqualand’s dependency on mining has caused a lot of “social ills”. When the OCC closed down its mines in the early 2000s, people lost their jobs and were left in “social ruins” because the mines brought no long term benefits. He is concerned about how cattle farmers on the outskirts of Concordia will be affected by the mining at the Rietberg mine.
He says the older people worked on the mines for “‘n appel en ‘n ui” (an apple and an onion – an Afrikaans idiom meaning very little). “It has always been our land. Our community never benefited. The day the mines closed, we were left with nothing,” said Cloete.
Copper 360 CEO Jan Nelson recently gave Mining Weekly an extensive interview. He said the company is currently “looking at about R12-billion to R15-billion worth of copper in the ground”.
Nelson also said Wheal Julia “is a surface deposit that’s yielded fantastic results”.
Nelson only responded briefly to GroundUp’s detailed questions and request for an interview. He emphasised that the mining activity was all legal.
But is mining at Wheal Julia legal?
The Concordia Communal Property Association (CPA), which falls under the Transformation of Certain Rural Areas Act (TRANCRAA), runs recently established communally-owned land. The land rights were officially handed over to the community in late 2022. On 14 February 2023, the title deed for the land was successfully transferred to the CPA, “solidifying their status as the landowner”, according to Nama Khoi Local Municipality spokesperson Jason Milford.
A community meeting was held on 24 August at the Concordia community hall. Over 100 residents attended. CPA chairperson Nuchey van Neel, addressing the meeting, said that the community had not been properly consulted about the intensity of the mining activities that would take place. This is despite a public consultation process that was held in 2020, an important component of any mine’s environmental impact assessment.
“People didn’t understand exactly what would happen with this mining activity, where it will be, how it will affect people, and who will eventually get something out of it,” said van Neel.
Henk Smith is a lawyer who has for decades been representing communities in the Northern Cape against mines. He is now representing the Concordia community. At the meeting he stated that Copper 360’s EIA did not deal with Wheal Julia, and that SHiP had not been granted a permit to start mining there. (Other than reiterating that their activities were legal, Copper 360 did not address our question about this.)
The EIA indeed only mentions three mines: Rietberg, Jubilee, and Homeep.
As a result, Smith said, the permit given by the DMRE was flawed.
And anyway, Smith added, “The law says you cannot mine within a town.” Community members cheered at this.
He said Jubilee and Wheal Julia should be rehabilitated rather than resurrected. “It’s not for new mining and extractive industries,” said Smith. Several residents then took turns to voice their opposition to the mine.
In his response to GroundUp Nelson said: “We record that the Copper 360 group of companies remains committed to the communities where it will be conducting mining operations, which includes Concordia. We are guided by our principles and values to improve the lives of those people, and future generations in the communities we engage with.”
The DMRE acknowledged receipt of our questions but did not respond.