In the late 1980s successful, independent coal producer Barry Nel found himself in a position where retirement might have seemed an attractive option. But Nel believed that there was more work for him to do for God’s Kingdom. “I just knew that there was more to give back,” he said.
In the years that followed he and his wife Peta-Ann frequently drove through an Eastern Cape rural area in the former Transkei, en-route to their holiday home. They often spoke about the fact that they were driving over a forgotten, historical Eastern Cape coalfield. They also used to discuss the dire poverty of the local people and whether anything could be done for them.
They began to pray about the coal and the poverty. In 1997 Nel went to France to learn more about new technology designed to burn low grade coal, such as occurred in the forgotten Eastern Cape coalfield. Inspired by the possibilities he could envision, Barry and Peta-Ann stepped up their prayers, and in 1998 God spoke to them through a speech by then President Nelson Mandela at the Rhema Church in Johannesburg. Mandela said he had been horrified when he saw rural women drawing slimy, green water from a filthy pond and found out that they could not even sterilise it by boiling because they had no access to electricity or fuel — there were not even any trees in the area for making wood fires. Mandela’s women were from an area close to the historic coalfield. The President said there was a great need for the Church to do more in rural areas.
“That (Mandela’s words) really got to us and we prayed about it. Not long after that I was reading the Bible and the words literally jumped off the page. I was reading Isaiah 41 from verses 17 to 20, which talk about God providing water and trees for the poor.”
The passage speaks about hills and valleys which are reminiscent of the terrain in the coalfield area. They also mention seven types of trees which would be planted, and further research showed that the symbolic meaning of the trees was purification (or a change of heart), construction, evergreen, peace and prosperity, and fuel, says Barry. And importantly, verse 20 says that the people will see that the blessings were from the hand of God — which Barry said showed him the coalfields would bring hope to the poor through God’s miraculous intervention and that God should get all the glory.
Barry believed that God had confirmed that he should tackle the resurrection of the forgotten coalfields. But he knew that it would be a hugely costly endeavour — way beyond his financial means. But he trusted God and so he sold “everything we had, so that at least we would have some project finance” and they moved from Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape.
Peta-Ann said it was a very testing time for her as she had not personally received a word of confirmation from God, but she decided to trust that her husband had heard the Lord correctly. In addition to the financial risk, she battled with the move from Johannesburg as it meant moving further away from her married son, Stephen, who was disabled through a spinal stroke. In time God graciously gave her a Scripture of her own to stand on.
“It is so important to find God’s word pertinent to your situation and let that be a key word for you — so that you can stand on that and speak it back to God all the time,” said Barry, who did just that through 12 challenging years of contending for the realisation of the vision he had received from God.
Barry succeeded in securing mining rights to the coalfields but he was not able to find project funders. He could no longer afford a salary for his son, David, who had joined him in the business some years previously, and so he and his wife returned to Johannesburg. But God’s hand was in this too and David got a senior job in the mining division of a major global business consulting firm which over the next seven years groomed him for what lay ahead.
Hope from Japan
In 2001 the Marubeni Corporation, a major Japanese consortium, showed interest in establishing an electricity supply venture in Cape Town, fuelled by coal from Barry’s coalfeld. Barry and Peta-Ann were so convinced that this was their breakthrough that they moved to Cape Town. But the deal in Cape Town did not materialise because of political issues and Marubeni moved on. By that time the Nel’s financial resources were so strained that Christian friends had to help them get by with food vouchers.
By 2004 Barry and Peta-Ann were ready to accept that they had taken a wrong turn and to go back to Joburg so that Barry could look for a job. But the leader of their Christian home cell group came to them and said “You are not going back to Johannesburg. We are going to raise enough money for you to carry on with the project.” Barry told the cell leader that there was no way that the home cell group could raise the big money to fund the project. But the leader said he should tell them what they needed to keep the project going for the next three months.
“We told them and incredibly the home cell came up with that amount of money,” said Barry.
God showed his hand again when the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station failed in 1995 and South Africa began to experience power blackouts. Prior to that Barry had forseen the need for independent power developers to supplement Eskom and had unsuccessfully approached independent power suppliers overseas to come to South Africa and use his coalfield to generate power. After the Koeberg crisis a UK power developer took Barry seriously paving the way for the long-awaited breakthrough. UK company Strategic Natural Resources (SNR) put up the money to start drilling on site to verify coal resources. And in 2007 SNR listed on the London Stock Exchange with Elitheni Coal as its main subsidiary.
Barry said this breakthrough was not an end but a new beginning in which God began to reveal that his plans were much bigger than his own. Barry’s vision of using the coal to fuel local power stations stalled when the South African Government decided that because of the recession it did not need additional power. Elitheni responded by securing export markets to take up its coal, resulting in corridor developments all the way down to East London and Coega, with a substantial job creation spinoff.
Barry’s son David rejoined his father and is now CEO of Elitheni and its holding company in London. And his son Stephen is now General Manager Compliance.
The SA Government is now recognising the need for a power station to be built at the coal mine but instead of the 250 MW that Barry originally envisioned, negotiations are around a 1 200MW power station that could be commissioned before 2018.
Elitheni has also established orphanages and other social responsibility projects in the mine area. These projects meet government social and labour plan requirements. “In meeting these requirements we are able to embrace God’s plan for his people,” said Barry.
Thousands of jobs
Barry said that he was confident that Elitheni would be able to achieve an annual production of 10 million tonnes of coal with the creation of some 5 000 jobs (approximately 500 people employed for every million tonnes of coal produced).
He said he was still standing on the word in Isaiah 41 that everyone would acknowledge that the blessings were provided by God, so that He would receive the glory. He said he was pleased that local authorities with whom Elitheni met began their business in prayer. He also said that even board members of the company in London with whom he has shared his story are beginning to acknowledge God’s hand in the successes.
Barry and Peta-Ann now live in a lovely home in Port Elizabeth, which they say they were thrilled to buy, after having not owned a home in years. And after the lean times during their years of pursuing a vision from God by faith, Barry said he still thanks God each time he is able to take money out of an ATM.