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Will Khulubuse Zuma, Zondwa Mandela face jail time over Aurora water pollution?

Jul 15 2019 16:01
Tehillah Niselow

The legal action against the politically connected former Aurora Empowerment Systems directors has dragged on for more than eight years and looks set to continue, with the National Prosecuting Authority arguing that the group is guilty of five counts in terms of the National Water Act.

Three of the accused - Khulubuse Zuma, Zondwa Mandela and Thulani Ngubane - appeared briefly in the Springs Regional Court with their legal teams on Monday.

If they are found guilty by the court, the directors could face five years imprisonment, a fine and could be ordered to pay for remedial treatment, according to Sections 152 and 153 of the National Water Act.

The matter was postponed because the accused are opposed to the case being broadcast by 24-hour news channel eNCA. Magistrate Nkhensani Moila will deliver her ruling on August 7.

Zuma, the nephew of ex-president Jacob Zuma, was Aurora's former chair. Mandela, late president Nelson Mandela’s grandson, was the mining group's ex-managing director. 

The fourth accused, former executive Raja Zainal Alam Shah, did not appear in court. The case had already been postponed in May to try to locate him. He had promised to invest millions into running the costly gold mines and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) claims he is in Malaysia. 

The Pamodzi gold mines, in Grootvlei near Springs and in Orkney in the North West, came under Aurora’s control in 2009 after they had been placed under provisional liquidation. 

In bid letters Aurora claimed to have funding and experience in mining. But the mines soon collapsed. The four accused were blamed by trade unions for selling off the mine's equipment and failing to pay 5 300 workers their salaries, leaving thousands of dependents destitute.  

One of the Largest Wetlands 

The Grootvlei mine drains into the Blesbok Spruit Wetland which is one of the largest wetlands in the highveld region of South Africa. The wetland is one of the tributaries of the Vaal River which supplies water to 10 million people according to a technical report from July 2018, undertaken by three academics at the University of South Africa and the University of Johannesburg. 

The report states that there were changes in the levels of sulphate in the Blesbok Spruit due to the intermittent acid mine drainage treatment regime of the nearby Grootvlei gold mine. 

“To save money, this mine would not always treat the AMD (acid mine drainage) it pumped,” the report’s authors Tracey McKay, Vukosi Welsh Ndlopfu and Abeer Ahmed Qaed Ahmed state.

Acid Mine Drainage 

Acid mine drainage refers to polluted water from mining areas which, depending on the mineral, could contain highly toxic substances. The researchers found that the water quality remains poor but improved overall after mining came to a halt at the Grootvlei mine in 2011.

Outa has been trying for several years to ensure the NPA holds the Aurora directors liable for alleged environmental violations. If they are found guilty by the court, the directors could face five years imprisonment, a fine and might be ordered to pay for remedial treatment. In a separate court action, The Pretoria High Court in June  2015 found the former Aurora directors responsible in their personal capacity and liable for R1.7bn in damages. It also found the company had lied about its finances and its experience in mining.

A provisional liquidation order was granted against Zuma in the Durban High Court in January for R1.4bn that he personally owed to creditors.

These are the charges the NPA will argue in relation to environmental violations: 

1. Unlawful Water Use

Between February 5 2010 to October 2010 the former Aurora directors are accused of unlawfully, intentionally or negligently failing to treat underground mine water prior to discharge into the Blesbok Spruit.

2. Failure to comply with conditions of permitted water usage

The former Aurora directors are accused of failing to ensure that the quality of the high-density sludge treated underground water discharged into the Blesbok Spruit was in compliance with their mining licence. 

3. Failure to comply with compliance notice 

On April 28, 2010, the former Aurora directors, are accused of failing to comply with a directive to treat underground mine water.

4. Pollution of water resource 

Between 5 February 2010 to October 2010 the former Aurora directors are accused of discharging untreated underground mine water into the Blesbok Spruit 

5. Detrimentally affecting water resource 

The former Aurora directors are accused of detrimentally affecting a water resource by discharging untreated groundwater into the Blesbok Spruit.  

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