Strike Matsepe used his life savings to buy a small plot of land near
the country's biggest steel mill, hoping it would become a thriving
farm in his old age. Now, weathered and sick, the 80 year old has had
to abandon his dream - the land and ground water are so polluted his
cattle have died and crops failed.
On Friday, ArcelorMittal SA, the world's largest steel marker,
dismissed allegations of severe environmental damage and unethical
business practices at the mill.
In 2002, the company took over the 67-year-old plant that residents and environmental groups say has polluted their lives.
Company officials acknowledge there is air and water pollution but say
that emissions comply with legislation and that clean-up operations are
They also say there are regular meetings with communities to address their concerns.
Nearly 500 families used to live on the farmlands known as Steel
Valley, opposite the mill's mountainous waste dump. Only four families,
including Matsepe's, continue to hold onto land.
A series of legal challenges and out-of-court settlements have resulted in buyouts of farms, and many people have moved away.
"This is a David and Goliath story," sociologist Jacklyn Cock said.
"This is about the power of the corporation. ArcelorMittal has had an
impact not only on air and water quality but people have lost their
livelihoods and lives."
Matsepe, who bought the farm in 1992, has refused efforts by the steel
mill to buy his land. He wants the polluters brought to justice and for
him to be adequately compensated.
"If I die now, my wife will get nothing because my pension is gone and
my cattle. Everything I worked for is gone now, and my children will
get nothing of the labor of my hands," Matsepe said.
The 5 683 acre Vanderbijlpark plant is situated in the country's
industrial heartland about 70 kilometers south of Johannesburg. Smoke
billows from its chimney stacks and fine black dust blows from the dump.
Environmental experts say ground water has been contaminated by toxins
that cause disease and birth defects. The company has also faced
charges of price-fixing, and a case relating to market collusion is
Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal is the target of a global campaign by
environmental groups to ensure European multinationals are liable for
the social and environmental impacts of their subsidiaries.
On Thursday about 20 former residents of the valley gathered in a
makeshift shed on Matsepe's property to recount their experiences to a
group of international journalists and environmental activists.
They spoke about how animals were born deformed and how tea would foam
when they poured milk into it. Clothes would be bleached of their
colors after washing; tins of food and even metal window frames would
"My oldest daughter has three different kinds of cancer. All my
children are sick, and what is really frightening is that my
grandchildren are also sick. This is from, I believe, where we stayed,"
said Joey Cock, 71.
At a later meeting, former employers spoke of terrible burns and
injuries, and unresolved compensation and pension claims. Some have
been retrenched and face eviction from their homes. Others stay without
water or electricity in rundown hostels owned by the company.
Many spoke of intimidation and said they felt used - like a "tool."
The company denies it has neglected its employers and says many
improvements have been made - and more are planned - to reduce
On a tour of the site Friday, reporters were shown where old dams
storing effluent water and other waste disposal sites are being
rehabilitated at a cost of about $57 million. There also are plans to
cap the slag heap and cover it with soil.
ArcelorMittal's chief executive, Nku Nyembezi-Heita, was quick to
distance the company from any damage caused by activities of the mill
before the new management took over. She acknowledged that Steel Valley
is an emotional issue but said there are no immediate plans to
rehabilitate the land.
"Where we have caused harm, our duty is to take responsibility," she said.
Observers charge that the government is reluctant to take action
against the powerful multinational. The company's owner, Lakshmi
Mittal, the world's third richest person, sits on a special
presidential economic advisory committee.
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