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Tribute to Samson Mokoena: Thorn in the side of ArcelorMittal

2 July 2024 at 8:10 am

Image by: Thom Pierce
Image by: Thom Pierce

The environmental justice movement is reeling since hearing of the untimely passing of Comrade Samson Mokoena; a fierce fighter for the right to breathe clean air, he died on Friday 28 June 2024 due to pneumonia. Samson was born on 2 August 1976 in Vanderbijlpark, on the fence lines of South Africa’s most culpable polluting industries that continue to wreak inter-generational havoc on the health and lives of people living in the Vaal. Over the decades of struggle in the Vaal and beyond, Samson often voiced the impact of polluting industries on his community, his family and his own health.

We heard in a voice note from his sister, Aletta Mokoena, that it started with tonsillitis on Tuesday last week. It worsened, so he went to the local clinic and was provided with medication. He became weaker, and on Friday morning, his mother and neighbour drove him to the doctor who put him on a drip and treated him for pneumonia. It was too late though, he passed away soon after the first drip was administered.

Samson’s work and life has been a source of immense inspiration, a galvanising force in building people power to challenge environmental and human rights abuses. He worked for decades to highlight the pollution caused by companies like ArcelorMittal and Sasol, in Vanderbijlpark, Sasolburg and surrounding areas.

He also took on the state over their failure to respect, protect and promote environmental and human rights. His leadership of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance has been part of his legacy of change making and mentorship, leaving an indelible impact on those he worked with. He did all this with a sense of humour, injecting a courageous energy into any space he found himself in.

“As a struggle stalwart and grassroots activist he dedicated his life and every breath to fighting for clean air and clean water for his community. His vast legacy remains, as people are inspired by his journey of speaking truth to power, and being a true comrade, standing in solidarity with those most affected by one of the most dangerously polluted areas in the world, the Vaal Triangle,” said Avena Jacklin, Operations Director at groundWork.

Samson co-founded the South African Water Caucus (SAWC) and served as the coordinator of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA). Over the 25-plus years of struggle, his passion and focus evolved into locally, nationally, regionally and internationally connected solidarity networks, and many friendships. Below are some of the messages of tribute from colleagues and comrades who walked part of this journey by his side.

“I still can’t believe that Samson is gone. That I will never again – except in photos and films – see his face, at once intense and friendly, hear his strong voice and feel his warm, comradely hug. We have been comrades in the struggle for environmental justice, in particular against water and air pollution, for 23 years now. He was not only a friend and comrade, but an important leader in the struggle for environmental justice in South Africa, Africa and the world. The last time I worked with Samson was in a research project to support VEJA’s involvement in a global green steel movement which was pressuring ArcelorMittal to make the same investments in their South African and other global South countries’ steel mills as they were putting into their European operations. It was part of a decarbonisation push. The research revisited 25 years of VEJA existence and work. Samson was with us in the room, but he was often interrupted, having to visit the doctor or go to the hospital. The years of pollution, struggle and stress were beginning to take their toll on him.”

Victor Munnik groundWork Researcher 

“Samson Mokoena was such a force, fighting tirelessly against air, water and land pollution which led to the Supreme Court of Appeal agreeing with him that the environmental pollution activities by ArcelorMittal SA must be exposed. After winning that landmark case, Samson continued to fight the good fight, taking on this multinational corporation. This unspeakable loss is devastating. His determined, courageous, fighting spirit was infectious, bringing people together and amplifying those often unheard voices that suffered, living near polluting industries. He was fearless but also patient and kind. I am deeply honoured to have known and worked with him.”

Michelle Koyama of Center for Environmental Rights

“For some years Bobby Peek and Gill Addison had been asking me to provide on-site admin support and training for VEJA, but I was reluctant to commit to travelling to Vanderbijlpark from Johannesburg, so I kept declining. Then, in 2011, Jackie Cock invited me to a seminar at Wits University, featuring none other than Samson Mokoena. By the end of the seminar I was completely bowled over and knew that I definitely wanted to work with Samson. So I did. I travelled up and down that highway for two days a week for some years, then for one day a week for a few more years. My respect for Samson grew apace with what became a deep and abiding affection.”

Joan Cameron of groundWork

“To convey in words the enormity of the loss is not possible, to the movement, to our individual struggles, to the human that was Samson Mokoena. He took on giants, challenged power, and never stopped fighting. Corporations trembled at the thought of VEJA. His personal experiences with AMSA shaped his activism, from a humble farmer to a defender of rights on international stages. He acted with boldness and integrity, and did not waver in the fight for a just and equitable society for all South Africans. Hamba kahle, my friend.”

Yegeshni Moodley Climate and Energy Campaigner at groundWork

“His unwavering dedication to activism will never be forgotten, he will be especially missed by members of the SACAN Community Based Organisations Working Group who held him in high esteem. Cde Samson’s leadership and courage in the face of adversity earned him a place among civil society and community heroes. He lived a life devoted to community emancipation and the restoration of human dignity for all. Cde Samson, we will honour your memory by carrying forward your mission. Rest in power.”

South Africa Climate Action Network 

“Samson had a vision for environmental and social justice for his community and for South Africa and challenged us to find innovative and bold new ways to realise this vision – to involve local and global networks in seeking change that we could never achieve just on our own. Building people power through collaboration was his way and he taught us all, led us all, and has made the world a better place through his work and life. We have been privileged and humbled to have shared our lives with someone so brave, smart and fun.”

Leanne Govindsamy of Center for Environmental Rights 

The funeral will take place on Saturday 6th July 2024 in the Vaal and partners in the #LifeAfterCoal campaign, groundWork, friends of the Earth South Africa, Center for Environmental Rights and EarthLife Africa will arrange an online memorial service which will take place in the following week.The timing and registration details for this will be announced in the next few days.

The Environmental Justice Fund has set up a BackaBuddy campaign to raise and process funds for immediate support to Samson’s family for funeral costs, and thereafter to set up an educational trust for his children.

https://www.backabuddy.co.za/campaign/in-memory-of-comrade-samson-mokoena

…ends…

For further information contact:

Tsepang Molefe: 074 405 1257  [email protected]

Images of Samson Mokoena (please note credit in folder):

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1U2Pwf9CQS0FUcHonPTOkHGAo8YntT5c9?usp=drive_link

Video excerpt: Samson Mokoena speaking in Luxemburg on People Planet earlier this year:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rKiTkNrPdaazkUcicBS2IdCN8cfAv6Cu/view

Compiled by Tsepang Molefe and Dorothy Brislin of groundWork