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South Africa: Women stand their ground against Big Coal

Big Coal

Creative Commons: Jeremy Buckingham, 2012

As coal continues to expand in South Africa, with all too often devastating effects, those most impacted by the industry are coming together to fight against this dirty industry.

Last month, female activists from across the African continent – including groups from South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana – came together to unite against Big Coal.

In a six-day strategy session, WoMin, a regional alliance of women’s organisations and movements against deadly natural resource extraction, highlighted the strength of the movement growing to challenge this dirty industry.

Coal is the fastest growing fossil fuel and the single largest contributor (40%) to CO2 emissions.

200 years after its beginnings, the industry is still expanding, even though less destructive ways of mass energy generation have been developed in the meantime.

More than 1200 coal-fired power plants and related infrastructure projects are planned in over 65 countries, despite the known evidence of climate change, its causes and dangers.

According to the world bank, if current levels of CO2 emissions continue, global average temperatures will increase by 4C by 2100.

However, in Africa’s interior, the increase may be up to 9C degrees.

At the same time, the three largest plants currently under construction, named Medupi, Kusile and ‘Coal 3’, are all located in South Africa, a country generating 94% of its energy from coal.

Further to the increasing global ecological damage, local communities in the South of the African continent have been suffering under poor working and living conditions related to the coal industry.

Many have been displaced from their homes in regions with previously productive agriculture, markets and services, to areas with infertile soil, resulting in famine, as women from the resettlement area Cateme, Mozambique describe.

The communities near coal power plants and related institutions often suffer health problems such as asthma and sinusitis due to air and water pollution.

The latter is also a problem in other regions, where water is diverted and polluted due to industry needs.

With politicians and even some trade unions acting as allies, the costs of this industry are shifted away in order to maintain the myth of cheap coal, and affect public services, such as healthcare and environmental monitoring and rehabilitation.

The black working class communities bear the brunt of the issues at hand. However, the women among them have been the most disadvantaged group.

As Samantha Hargreaves and Hibist Kassa from the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) – a non-profit news agency for social justice – point out, women are usually the carers for community members affected by the aforementioned illnesses, while often suffering themselves.

They provide the labour benefiting the multinational companies, both in the sense of reproducing, as well as working in low – or often unpaid – jobs.

Furthermore, often women have no other choice but to, in the words of a young woman activist, offer their bodies ‘as a CV’ in order to be offered low-paid, short-term jobs at the coal companies.

However, the increasing number of women are uniting locally and internationally to fight against the injustice caused to them, is highlighting the strength of the challenge growing up against coal.

The WoMin, meeting – ‘Women stand their ground against Big Coal’ –  attracted over 50 women activists from regional groups from South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Speaking to SACSIS the women shared stories of the violence and arrests used against women activists.

For fear of reprisals, the activists interviewed by SACSIS do not provide their real names.

Nevertheless, as Hargreaves and Kassa conclude in their analysis, the growing movement is becoming an important force in the fight for an alternative to the exploitation of workers and natural resources.

It has already proven to be strong enough to withstand the violence directed at their peaceful protest.

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