South Africa, gold mines continue poisoning communities

Gold mines, even abandoned ones, are still poisoning thousands of people in South Africa due to high concentrations of heavy metals, radiation and contaminated water.

Johannesburg, in South Africa was spawned by gold mining when the metal was discovered in the 1880s in the Witwatersrand goldfield, the world’s biggest, arching around the south and west of the city. More than 600 mines lie abandoned with much of their waste piled up high next to residential communities, most of which are marginalised, poor and black.

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Children swim in a toxic water pool on a mine dump in Soweto © Federation Sustainable Environment

Radioactive dumps in communities

Johannesburg and surrounding communities’ main concern are mine mountain dumps, made up of crushed, sand-like refuse materials known as tailings produced during the mining process, a complex mixture of metals and dust particles.

Read more: The Kabwe lead mine, closed over 20 years ago, is poisoning thousands of children in Zambia

Illegal mining has plagued South Africa’s mining sector for decades, and extends from small time pilfering to global organized crime networks © Sabc Media














“When the wind blows, fine particles from these man-made dumps are carried up into the air and deposited on our homes,” Rasalind Plaatjies, a Soweto resident, says. “It’s no ordinary dust, either: the residue of decades of mining, it can contain traces of everything from copper and lead to cyanide and arsenic”.

Experts describe the ­ mine dumps in Johannesburg as catastrophic and dangerous. “An estimated 600,000 metric tonnes of radioactive uranium are buried in waste rock in and surrounding Johannesburg, that is around three times what was exported during the Cold War”. It’s heartbreaking that residents are forced to live in these conditions, according to Doctor Frank Winde, an academic at South Africa’s North West University. “The radioactive metal can work its way into rivers when it dissolves in rain and runs off the mounds, or when abandoned mines are flooded”.

Gold mines have endangered and disempowered people

Environmental justice activist Mariette Liefferink says gold mining has both endangered and disempowered people. “There have been several discharges of potentially radioactive and toxic slurry, and acid mine water from the pipelines and unfortunately, the underground water table has been contaminated”. She warned that the area is stuffed with dangerous materials that can contribute to immediate and long-term medical problems ranging from asthma and skin rashes to cancer and organ damage.

Mariette Liefferink is the CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. She has spent years raising the alarm about acid mine drainage in South Africa © Sunday Times

Meanwhile, ­­the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) says previous and current governments haven’t complied with international law, reacting too slowly and doing too little to reduce the harm from abandoned and unprotected active mines. “Only then will South Africa live up to the human rights commitments it made when apartheid ended,” Bonnie Docherty, senior lecturer and researcher at IHRC said.

“Gold mining has both endangered and disempowered the people of this country for decades. But despite some signs of progress, the government’s response to the crisis has been insufficient and unacceptably slow,” she added.

Read more: Aguas de Oro. The documentary about a Peruvian woman standing alone against the giants of mining

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Miners wearing safety equipment walk through an underground tunnel at a gold mine in South Africa © Leopardo Nebuloso

Cover mine dumps

The South African mining industry has in the past implemented various strategies to reduce pollution from mine dumps. These have included rehabilitating areas by spraying mine dumps with water, planting grass, engaging in clean up operations; offering free health screenings; ensuring water treatment plants are adequate to prevent decaying; and improving control of run-off and seepage from tailing dams.

The South African mining industry has started planting grass and spraying mine dumps with water to prevent the dust from contaminating surrounding communities © Community Monitors

Industry safety questioned

Although South Africa is a leading gold producer, safety in the industry has been questioned in recent years. Some environmental right groups argue that spraying water and planting grass on mine dumps is ineffective as the grass withers during the dry season, and water is rapidly absorbed or evaporates.

In February this year, 955 workers in the Beatrix mine in the town of Welkom, 290 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, were safely brought back to the surface after being trapped for days. They’d been stuck underground since a power cut struck and back-up generators failed to work. “The accident is thought to have occurred when a storm knocked over an electricity pylon close to the site, triggering a huge power cut,” James Wellsted, firm spokesperson for the Sibanye-Stillwater, which owns the mine, said.

A worker smiles after being rescued from the mine © Sabc Media

Illegal gold mining boom

Across South Africa‚ mining towns are under siege from illicit syndicates. These criminal gangs continue working in abandoned and disused mine tunnels. The decline of the gold mining sector, unemployment, illegal migration and poverty have all contributed to the growth of such criminal activity.

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Illegal miners bring a dead miner’s body from an abandoned shaft in Roodepoort in Johannesburg © Sabc

Furthermore, these criminal gangs employ desperate young men who flock to South Africa from impoverished towns and villages in neighbouring Zimbabwe‚ Lesotho and Mozambique. This work is dangerous and often deadly: as well as digging in the disused mines, heavily armed gangs also steal gold from the remaining working shafts.

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