A massive mine dump is rising like a new sand dune next to Blyvooruitzicht's main shopping centre outside Carletonville in western Gauteng. Its white and yellow layers are the waste from mining in the area, mining that built the town.
But with the collapse of the industry, the dump is not being looked after and on most days sand billows across the community, covering everything and getting into people's lungs.
"The first two weeks I came here, I had such problems with my chest. I told my daughter that if this continued, it would kill me," says a tired-looking Michael Lonn. He spent a quarter of a century in the mining industry as a shift boss and thought he had left the dust and suffocating heat behind.
"I walked away and thought I was free. I started my business here. But when the mine stopped working, this dump became a huge problem."
He runs a pawn shop with his daughter, Michelle, and keeps things clean only by constant washing and by having a cloth and polish at the front door so that he can start again every morning.
"You should see the dust here on some days. We all have to wear masks," he says. His daughter has a baby who has to remain at home with his wife because the dust would be too dangerous for her.
The problem is with one mine in particular – Blyvoor – but all the dry slimes dams have dust streaking off them.
"The mines don't spray [water to keep the dust down] on the dams anymore. They don't care now and it's our problem," says Lonn. He has to take medication to ease his breathing, and he has trouble sleeping because he sweats every night and wakes up choking.
Village Main Reef Gold Mining
Blyvoor mine has been in operation for as long as locals can remember. The small town on the sloping side of a mountain was named after it. But the town is dilapidated and has the feel of the set of a post-apocalyptic film. Buildings are in various states of decay, from occupied houses where the paint is peeling and the walls are cracking to homes and shops where all that is left are the walls. In such cases, the weeds are king.
Last May the mine, which was owned by DRD Gold and a black economic empowerment consortium, was sold ndash; in principle ndash; to Village Main Reef. It started operations, which included mining underground and re-mining old dumps for gold. The waste from these processes was then mixed with water to create a sludge that could be pumped into slimes dams. These pipes crisscross Blyvoor, dictating where the roads go, before arriving at the dam. Here, trees are supposed to be planted to anchor the sand — all the surrounding dams are covered in shrubs — and dampened by sprinklers.
Mining operations ceased last month when the mine went into liquidation. In its annual results, Village Main Reef, which is not legally allowed to comment because of the liquidation process, said the mine had lost R88-million in the second quarter of the year. It also said the deal to sell the mine had not been completed because two of the conditions had not been met: the mining right had not been converted into its name and had also not been changed from an old right to a new one.
But as local resident José de Gouveia drives around the periphery of the dam, his car is blanketed in dust. Writing notes is hard as sand gets into the pen and forms a crunchy layer on the notebook. De Gouveia moved here from Madeira in 1965 because the area had a similar temperature and acres of farmland. Now, everywhere you look you'll see a slimes dam or the tall cement shaft of a mine. The world's deepest gold mine ndash; Tau Tona ndash; is in the neighbouring valley.
"Normally they spray, but now they are doing nothing because the mines are having financial difficulties," he says, sweating in the stifling heat of his car. All the windows are closed to stop the dust getting in. The car's thermometer reads 35°C.
Two sides of the slimes dam have sprinklers, but the black plastic pipes show no sign of ever having worked. The upper half of the dam has no sprinklers and every gust of wind sends up waves of dust. The photographer almost vanishes in one of them. "Mines do what they want. They aren't conscious of the environment," says De Gouveia.
The law is straightforward
Mines are regarded as closed only when they receive a certificate of closure under section 43 of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act. The gold mines in this area are listed by the department of mineral resources as a "high environmental risk due to uranium content". The older slimes dam next to the shopping centre was mined by a now-defunct uranium processing plant because of its high residue.
The department did not respond to questions.
"Blyvoor has gone into liquidation, so who can we hold responsible?" asks De Gouveia while standing on the dam and looking out over the jacaranda-lined streets of Blyvoor.
"The problem is the mines have lawyers and wealth. We can try [to] fight them, but what chance do we have?" Like other locals, he says proving that their health problems are linked to the mine is near impossible ndash; even if they know it is true.
The mine is mostly silent, with the only sound being corrugated iron sheets flapping in the wind. It is as dilapidated as the town, with streaks of rust and holes in all the buildings. The sole human presence is the guards at the gate. When operations stopped, its shafts threatened to fill with water and flood the neighbouring mines. Adjoining mines went to court to gain access to the mine so that they could start pumping water.
In a liquidation application, the position of remedying environmental damage versus the reimbursement of creditors is ambiguous. Catherine Horsfield, a lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights, says it is one of the areas of mining law that seems not to have been tested. In theory, mines have to set aside or guarantee funds for remediation. But often this does not happen and in the case of a liquidation these funds could go into the larger kitty.
Photography by Clarissa Sosin, M&G
Buried in Village Main Reef's financial reports is a reference to R114.9-million in liabilities the mine has incurred for "rehabilitation" requirements. But the same report says that, as a result of the liquidation, the company has no further financial liabilities. The liquidators did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them.
This state of affairs leaves residents in limbo. Desiree Barreiro is the owner of the local Kwikspar. On this particular day the dust outside is not heavy, but every shelf is still covered by a thin layer of white dust. "You cannot believe the destruction. My shop cleaners have to wear masks to keep the dust out when they work."
Everyone who works at her store suffers from chest and breathing problems, which started when the slimes dam grew high enough for dust to blow into her shop. Before that, she says there were no problems.
"We cannot afford scientists to test things so [that] we can prove that [the mine dust] is making us sick, but it is obvious." Barreiro holds up a bag of dust to illustrate her point and asks whether the Mail & Guardian can test it.
"I have heard that these mine dumps have uranium and other waste in them. It's in the dust, but what can we do about it?"