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South Africa Iron Age site 'threatened'

By Catriona Davies, for CNN
  • South Africa's department of Mineral Resources has allowed mine close to World Heritage site
  • UNESCO is sending a mission to South Africa to investigate
  • Mapungubwe has remains of southern Africa's first complex civilization

(CNN) -- A coal mine being developed close to a World Heritage Site in South Africa could "completely destroy" one of the country's most cherished national parks, UNESCO has warned.

Environmental, wildlife and archaeological groups have objected to the South African government's decision to allow the mine near the boundary of Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in the extreme north of the country.

The area has evidence of the first complex society in southern Africa, dating back to the Iron Age about 1,000 years and rock art up to 10,000 years old. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

The Australian-owned company Coal of Africa (CoAL) was given permission for a mine seven kilometers from the park's boundary by South Africa's Department of Mineral Resources earlier this year.

UNESCO is sending a team of experts to South Africa in November to assess the impact of the proposed mine and decide what action to take next.

Eloundou Lazare, head of the Africa section at UNESCO, told CNN: "This is a very critical mission. There are major concerns about the granting of the mining licence."

Nick Hilterman, of the Mapungubwe Action Group, which has formed to protest against the mine and is appealing the decision to South Africa's High Court, told CNN: "This is such an important area for South Africa and indeed for the world. It's a unique landscape.

"It has almost been frozen in time so the landscape is perfect and untouched, which is one of the reasons it was designated as a World Heritage site."

Mapungubwe is such a sacred and wonderful place.
--Nick Hilterman, Mapungubwe Action Group

Mapungubwe Action Group has teamed up with several environmental groups including Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Peace Parks Foundation and the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists, to appeal against the mine.

Alex Schoeman, secretary of the Association of South African Professional Archaeologists, said: "When we first heard reports about the mine we didn't believe them because it was almost unbelievable that it would happen."

"From an archaeological point of view, this area is important because it's evidence of the first complex society in Southern Africa," he continued. "We estimate there were 5,000 people living on Mapungubwe Hill and 20,000 in the whole area.

"We believe the mining area itself has about 20 different types of archaeological sites from different periods, including cattle pens which were also used as cemeteries. These sites will be destroyed if the mine goes ahead."

Carolyn Ah Shene-Verdoorn, policy and advocacy manager for BirdLife South Africa, said: "It's a beautiful site and once you set the precedent for mining, other companies will follow and the area will be totally destroyed."

A report from UNESCO's latest committee meeting in July said: "In terms of both culture and nature, any development of this site.....could completely destroy a landscape that has the potential to contribute significantly to an understanding of the wider settlement history of Mapungubwe.

"It could also pollute the Limpopo river which crosses the property."

World Heritage Sites are usually surrounded by buffer zones protecting their immediate vicinity. However, in the case of Mapungubwe, this was not complete. Schoeman said: "It left a door that no-one foresaw."

South Africa's own Department of Environmental Affairs said in a statement on its website that it found out about the proposed mine from local media reports. The department immediately issued a statement criticizing the decision by the Department of Mineral Resources to grant permission.

After work started on the mine, the Department of Environmental Affairs issued an order for Coal of Africa to stop work on unauthorized work to build roads and pipelines.

The Department of Environmental Affairs is responsible for authorizing these works, while the Department of Mineral Resources is responsible for the mining rights.

Work on the mine has now stopped pending the outcome of these negotiations.

CoAL said it compiled a 2,000-page Environmental Management Plan as part of its application for the mine.

In a statement to CNN, the company said: "CoAL believes that by applying responsible management of all aspects of mining, it is possible for the mines, eco tourism and the communities to co-exist for the benefit of all parties and in response to the development needs of the region."

It added that the mine would directly and indirectly create 28,000 jobs and that CoAL would commit 18 million Rand ($2.6 million ) a year on environmental management and 160 million Rand ( $23 million) over five years on skills development, infrastructure development and community services.

South Africa's Department of Mineral Resources said in a statement issued to CNN: "The DMR believes that mining and the environment can and should co-exist to the benefit of all South Africans and the world at large.

"A number of appeals have been lodged with the Department of Mineral Resources against the granting of the right in respect of the project and that appeal process is currently underway.

"Once all the parties have been afforded the opportunity to respond, the Minister of Mineral Resources will adjudicate on the matter."