The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has set aside a 2016 decision allowing a new coal mine to be developed in the Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga.
The decision had been made by former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane and late environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa.
The court order, made by a coalition of eight civil society organisations, challenged a range of authorisations permitting an underground coal mine in a strategic water source area and a protected area.
Under the Protected Areas Act in 2014, the Mpumalanga government declared the Mabola Protected Environment part of the declaration of more than 70 000 hectares of protected areas in the Mpumalanga grasslands, said Sharon Pollard, spokesperson for the Association for Water and Rural Development. Pollard also spoke on behalf of the civil society coalition.
"In 2016, without public consultation and without notice to the coalition, the two ministers gave their permission for a large, 15-year coal mine to be built inside the Mabola Protected Environment," Pollard added in a statement.
According to papers, which News24 has seen, the court set aside the permission and referred the decision back to the two ministries for reconsideration on the basis that the ministers did not take their decisions in an open and transparent manner or in a manner that promoted public participation. The court found that they were therefore procedurally unfair.
The court also ordered, among other things, that the ministers should comply with sections 3 and 4 of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA) and take into account the interests of local communities and the environmental principles referred to in Section 2 of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) "with a strict measure of scrutiny".
The ministers were also ordered to defer their decisions on reconsideration until after the Environmental Management Programme and Water Use Licence appeals have been determined.
Spokesperson for the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON-SA), Mashile Phalane, welcomed the judgment, describing it as a "victory for environmental justice".
"We want to see protected areas actually protected against mining by our government as custodians of the environment on behalf of all South Africans. This custodianship is violated if decisions that have such important consequences are taken behind closed doors. MEJCON-SA is deeply invested in issues of accountability. This judgment reinforces the fundamental importance of fair and transparent decision-making," he said.
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