Voices of acid mine drainage
From the Northern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal, from Gauteng to Mpumalanga, millions of South Africans must cope with mine dumps, shafts, dust, and polluted water left in the wake of decades of uncapped mining.
To speak to those in affected areas is to speak about more than just mine waste. Racism, inequality, poverty, the state of the country’s fast degrading water, poor service delivery, lack of education, frustration, concern, disempowerment, and a strong and unfaltering sense of community and justice all lick at the edges of comments about polluted water and air.
Here, the M&G takes you through the streets of Soweto to the waters of the Wonderfonteinspruit and the coalfields of Mpumalanga, introducing those whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by acid mine drainage (AMD) and mine waste.
Soweto is home to several large mine dumps, or super dumps, as well as the polluted Klip River, which boasts a pH of 4,9 (neutral is seven) as well as elevated levels of iron and manganese. This water is used in traditional medicines and for prayer and baptism.
Israel Mosala, EarthLife Africa volunteer and Soweto resident
“To me, AMD is a multiple destroyer. It destroys your livelihood, your livestock, the quality of your water, the quality of your soil, it’s high-risk to eat vegetables that come from that ... I hate mining whole-heartedly. I hate it.”
Quinton Buthelezi, worshipper
“[Baptism in the Klip River is] a cleansing ceremony. It takes away all the bad experiences someone has had; it cleanses away the bad omens. I come here once in three months. Some people come here the whole week, the whole month.
“We all need water. We cannot do anything without it. When there’s no water, there’s no life.”
Rantho Sello, sangoma
“[Traditional medicine users] say the water is helping them, but they become sick ... If you take just a little bit, then it will kill your innards. It’s acid ... even some have got cancer, but it takes time to come. They think they have been bewitched.
“This is not a matter of ignorance. It’s a psychological trend. They all follow each other ... I wish our people would stop drinking this water.”
Mabule Mokhine, EarthLife Africa volunteer and Soweto resident
“We need public-private partnerships that are driven in grassroots involvement ... Government leadership must cascade down to the ordinary man and woman in the street in a broad-based coalition, and if not, this thing will not be turned around. We need a total shift in South African governance. This has nothing to do with profits, but inter-generational social equality.”
Davidsonville is a vibrant, primarily coloured community in the West Rand and was initially formed by the apartheid government. It sits nestled between two large mine dumps owned by DRD Gold and a wetland full of acid mine drainage.
Denzel April, resident
“The dump is affecting our people so badly. TB is the biggest problem. The sand is so dangerous. When there are no birds, you know there must be a problem.
“There’s nothing happening. Not the DA, not the ANC, not the council—no one is helping us. People want our votes, but they don’t help us. This is not about politics, it’s about the community.”
Alan Jacobs, resident
“I live directly behind the mine dump and right next to the wetland. I’m 60-years-old. I was born and bred in Davidsonville. The water runs into my house. It stinks, it’s bad. When it’s windy the dust comes down ... I’m used to it now, I’ve stayed here 15 years now. But it’s getting worse ... the house is sinking. The whole street is impacted. I went to council, but they’re doing nothing about it. I asked them to come and see the problem. I think they’ve forgotten about us. I just want them to build a wall at the back of my yard, then it would be OK.”
Solomon Mohamed, resident
“There’s a man here and he has epilepsy and we don’t know the cause, but we think maybe it’s from the waste. First [government] waits for someone to die, then they say something about it.”
Kagiso is a sprawling township situated an hour outside of the Johannesburg CBD. It is host to squatter camps and several RDP developments, as well as several mine dumps and the Lancaster Dam, a site deemed radioactive by the National Nuclear Regulator.
David Ncwana, resident
“I live in a squatter camp on top of a mine dump. I’m from the Eastern Cape. I’m unemployed. I’ve been living here for eight years. Nothing grows in my garden because it’s bad soil. It’s the government who leaves us here. The people who are suffering here stay here because they can’t pay rent.”
Patience Mmpuagabo, resident
“My house is surrounded by a mine dump. I started living here in 2001. The dust is the problem. It irritates me, it gets all over the house and the kids get sick from it. They cough a lot. I have a six-week old child and I worry about him. I have asthma. It started around 2003. I went to the clinic, and they gave me a pump. People don’t talk about the dust very often. People are worried, but they just don’t talk about it.”
Phildile Msibi, resident
“I’ve lived in Kagiso for three years now. I live in an RDP house. I’m very worried. You can see the place is not good, and we’ve got babies and all that. The Lancaster Dam has bad water. Some of the children drowned in there. It’s dirty.
“I’m happy that I’ve got a house, even though the place is bad.”
Busiso Floyd Marase, resident
“It takes 45 minutes to walk to the clinic. There are no schools here, the schools are very far. There are no jobs, you work one day, you work two days, but that’s it. There is one police station in all of Kagiso. You have to take a taxi, you can’t walk. The ambulance can’t get here.
“The government doesn’t care. I’m angry, the government should move the dumps.”
Robert Segine, resident
“I grew up here. I work at the mine as a security guard. I’ve been there seven months now. I like it. The dust doesn’t bother me. A few of the other guys are staying in Kagiso too. They’re not worried. They like working at the mine. It’s a good job. I work 12 hours a day.”
Mary Smith, resident
“There are a lot of renal problems and HIV and TB. There’s a clinic, but the doctor comes only on Wednesday, and he leaves at 12 o’clock. If they can close the water, I think it’ll be alright. People are raped there. We hear the sounds but we can’t go out and do anything about it.
“When I see all the pollution, it makes me care less, you say, ugh, why? If they’re doing that to us, what can I do?”
Squatter camp on mine dump, Randfontein
A dilapidated, unremediated mine dump is now home to a garbage dump where hundreds of poor South Africans and migrants eek out a living in an unimaginable environment. Residents spoke hesitantly to the Mail & Guardian, saying they were worried that they would be kicked out of the area and had nowhere to go.
Sinhle Ncube, resident
“I’m from Zimbabwe and I’ve lived in South Africa since 2002. I’ve lived in this squatter camp for one year—when I separated from my fiancé, I came here. I’m unemployed and work at the dump. There’s no clinic here, no toilet, and one tap for everyone.”
Kleinboy Ntshina, resident
“I’m from the Eastern Cape. I was in jail from 1995-2002. I came to stay here, because I was suffering.
“It’s not fine for me. Dogs die here, chickens die here, there are children in the dump site. Here, if you get sick, you die. You don’t survive. I have a son and daughter who live with me in the camp.”
Kroonfontein, outside of Emalahleni, is dotted with several large farms and many small, subsistence farms, located next to a large coal-fired power plant.
Josephine Surugo, resident
“I was born in 1929. There are 10 people in this house. No one is employed. Everyone lives off my pension.
“I’ve never liked the mine. We cough sometimes because of the TB. We don’t have a clinic here. The natural spring is bad water. We can’t use it. And the water from the municipality isn’t enough. Within 20 minutes, the barrel is empty.
“When I was young I had to work and I had to buy a box to stand on because I was too short to reach. I’ve been working since then, and I’m tired. You work and work and work, but you can’t get any further. It wasn’t until I got the pension that I was able to take in air.”
Emalahleni, Extension 4 and 5
Emalahleni, formerly Witbank, has hosted coalmines for decades. A 5km long trail of poisoned water and sulfate crust lines Extension 4 and 5, home to thousands of lower-income South Africans.
Little boy playing near the water (no name given)
“Where there’s salt, it means there’s a mine. It looks like a disease. Because it’s an old mine, it’s dangerous. The water is not good. When I swim in it, it tastes salty.”
Potchefstroom is situated on the Far West Rand, downstream from the Wonderfonteinspruit and next to the Boskop Dam, which have both seen their uranium levels and salt loads increase as a result of local mining operations and Gauteng’s 2002 Western Basin decant. Just how bad the water is, however, is up for debate. The local government claims that Potchefstroom’s water is of no concern, whereas some academics, activists, and local farmers claim otherwise.
Anton Goosens, resident
“I read in the newspaper that the water quality is good water. I’m not worried at all. I was born here. I drink the water every day. It’s just sensation if you ask me.”
Johann van der Westhuizen, local fisher, Boskop Dam
“This dam isn’t that bad as far as I’m concerned. At this stage, poor water quality is just about everywhere in South Africa. The fish are generally healthy and that’s what we’re looking for. At the Vaal Dam, I’ve gotten some fish with blood scales and things like that. Now they say you can’t drink the water there. It smells badly. We bring our own water.”
“I’m sure it will affect our children. It does worry me. Luckily in school they teach our children what’s going on. But they don’t do enough with the environment. It’s something that’s been said too little and done too little.”
“The wrong people are in power. The white guy that used to do the work and get things going and keep things going ... get fed up and they leave. This whole thing is like hooking a fish on its backside.”
Patricia van der Westhuizen, wife of Johann van der Westhuizen
“Water everywhere is getting worse. We used to live on the Hartebeespoort Dam. It was the sickest we had been in our life. The water was green, your skin was always itchy ... I couldn’t even give it to my dog. We had to buy our water every day. That’s why we moved. There must be qualified people to look after our water.”
“I moved here from Iraq. I left because of the war. My family went to Europe, but I came here because South Africa is the best.
“We are worried. We use reverse osmosis in our house, because my wife only has one kidney. I don’t think there’s anything else you can do ... It’s scary. I’m sure it can cause a lot of things, especially to the kids.”
“The government must do something about this. It’s their responsibility to make sure everyone has good water. They must start implementing a system that works. Water treatment plants are not up to date. They’re not at full capacity.”