The small community of Riverlea in southwestern Johannesburg is built around a mine dump, and on either side other dumps tower over it. From the streets the view is dominated by mountains of dirty yellow sand and the FNB Stadium in the distance. In the middle of the day, people wander around in their pyjamas and chat with neighbours – work is hard to come by.
DRD Gold is breaking down the old dump to reclaim precious metals. People in the community say this is the source of many of their woes – the work fills the air with dust storms and makes them sick.
The 50-year-old suburb of Riverlea was built when the apartheid government dumped people where no one else wanted to live. Since 1994 it has been one of those places that politicians use to show what needs to be done – former president Nelson Mandela visited after his release from prison and Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille was there recently.
The dump predates the community – it was created in the early 1900s. For several decades it stood like a silent, brooding sentinel before the recent mining operation began.
Faridea Appolis remembers playing on the dump as a child. "We used to get into a box and slide down the side," she said. At that age the dump was something different, a place of endless entertainment. As she has grown up this naivety has worn off, she said.
The human costs of the dump are felt by everyone. Appolis shows the white sores that run down her arm. She said she has no idea what they are or what had caused them.
Other residents have similar afflictions and most of the people the Mail & Guardian spoke to had an asthma pump or were on some sort of medication. Many had tuberculosis. "That mine makes us all sick. People here are more often sick than they are not," she said.
Appolis said if residents wanted to have any chance of seeing a doctor they had to be at the local clinic before 4am.
Too hot indoors
Ruweida Mills said illness was a fact of life, but it was when her grandchild got sick that she became really worried. "My wake-up call was when my granddaughter woke up because she was coughing so much," she said.
Before the new operation, which started in 2010, the dump was covered by a thin layer of vegetation and a few trees. This tended to stop the dust blowing. Now heavy machinery – which the community said keeps them awake at night with loud noises and bright lights – has taken a giant bite out of the old dump.
"In August the wind blows the sand so much that you cannot even see in front of you. It goes into bread bins; into your television. It even eats steel," said Granwell Njars.
This creates a dilemma for people because although they try to seal their houses against the dust, they still need to open windows because it gets too hot indoors.
One local, who only volunteered Mohammed as his name, said he has to sleep with the windows open, regardless of the dust.
With his asthma he needs the fresh air. "I grew up here and the mine dust affects all of us, especially the children. It is a very fine dust so it goes everywhere," he said, standing with his back to the mine.
"You just can't get the taste of the dust out of your mouth. And you feel the sand particles all day when you eat or drink, even after you have brushed your teeth."
Joan Nortjie has lived next to the mine for four decades. She and her husband left the impoverished Eastern Cape and came to Riverlea in 1972 to find work.
"Back then the dust was like a thick mist. My husband didn't work on the mines, but he died of a chest problem," Nortjie said.
She knows the mine is making people sick, but she hasn't been able to get anyone to tell her the truth. "Nobody will say that it is the mine, but I know it is. So we just have to carry on," she said.
Her children have moved back to the Eastern Cape – she wanted to get them away from the dust. Over Christmas, she returned to the province for some fresh air.
"I was swollen like Humpty Dumpty when I went back. The good, fresh air made me better. It would make life much better to have that all the time."
Nortjie said she has to stay and work so she has enough money to go home: "When I retire I will go back, unless I die."
Her peach tree and vegetable garden are dead. She blames the mine. Around the block from her, Njars said the same thing had happened to his vegetable garden. He throws away the deformed fruit that does grow. In other gardens and along the grassy street verges other fruit trees have stopped growing. Everyone blames the mine.
Degrees of enthusiasm
James Duncan, spokesperson for DRD Gold, said the company has worked closely with the community. "We deal on an ongoing basis with legitimate complaints. Regrettably, there are also individuals and organisations manifesting pretty inexcusable opportunism here and we obviously are not inclined to engage with them with any degree of enthusiasm."
Dust levels were also being continually monitored and the results were provided to interested parties.
"Dust measurement from this particular site has generally been within the regulated limits," Duncan said.
When it comes to community members blaming the operation for the dust and their chest problems, they would have to prove this.
"The burden of proof rests with the complainants," he said.
Duncan said the dust-level figures could not be released to the M&G, because the newspaper was not an affected party.
Zingaphi Jakuja, spokesperson for the department of mineral resources, said the mine had all the required authorisations and was working with the department to keep its operation within legislated limits.
"Numerous complaints" had been received from the community about dust and water pollution, and these were being addressed by the department's regional office, Jakuja said. "It must be noted that the mining involves the reclamation or removal of a sand dump and a slimes dump, which attracts dust and noise."