Graves bulldozed for security fence

Born 1869

Died 1954

Except for their name, there is no more detail about the life of the person on this nondescript tombstone. Cast in light grey cement, it sits at the head of a rectangular, brick-lined grave in Vanderbijlpark. The bricks are a faded red. The veld trying to overgrow the grave is a dull green. In March, the temperature here seems stuck on 30°C.

The Mail & Guardian hasn’t published their name, out of respect for their family. They died a decade after the giant ArcelorMittal steelworks were built to supply South Africa’s arms industry. In the decades following, the works expanded to cover a site contained inside a 35km perimeter fence. Furnaces, towering smokestacks, 40m-high mine dumps and rows of mills produced vital steel for an apartheid state struggling under sanctions.

The still air means the black dust and grey smoke from the works and its dumpsite head straight into the sky. Things aren’t so bad on this late March day — industrial action has slowed production. On a busy and windy day, polluted air is blown from the plant over Vanderbijlpark’s nearly 100 0000 residents and across this graveyard.

Only five graves are as well defined as the one containing the remains of the person who died in 1954. One still gets visited, with a random assortment of new trinkets placed on it. Following the straight line created by the graves, several more earth humps run towards the north.

But, going south towards ArcelorMittal, the line of graves intersects the steel plant’s 3m-tall perimeter fence. A 2m-wide path has been bulldozed and graded on the outside of the fence, until it collides with the graves and then goes through them. Bits of tombstone, brick and rock used to demarcate other graves have been thrown up into a mound running next to the path.

The graves would have faced homes, as is custom. Covering half a century, from the 1930s, they range from the old to the smaller, more recent grave of a child. Now an entire part of the history of the area is gone.

And the homes are also gone. The Vaal is crammed with South Africa’s violent history of oppression, from migrant labour supplying industries such as ArcelorMittal and Sasol, to forced displacement and resistance. Sharpeville and Sebokeng are all close enough to be blanketed in air pollution from the steel plant.

More recently, ArcelorMittal has been buying up the homes of people who complain about toxic air that blows over the perimeter fence or polluted water that seeps under it. One of the last people left on this western side of the plant, John Dewing, led the M&G to the graveyard.

The veld around it carries some clues to the lives that used to flourish here. Cracked cement slabs, pulled apart by eager weeds, are all that remain of a petrol station and a local shop. Smaller slabs show where smallholder farmers built their homes, often taking pensions from lives spent working at ArcelorMittal to buy farms and livestock.

Now everything is silent. Just one partial row of graves remains. A few hundred metres away, the remains of burnt tyres and rocks litter a tar road that protesting workers tried to block. Demanding that ArcelorMittal put workers on permanent contracts, they have since moved to the eastern side of the plant. Police Nyalas sit nearby, ready to force them into silence.

Two days after the M&G’s visit, President Cyril Ramaphosa celebrated Humans Rights Day in Sharpeville, a dozen kilometres away, next to another graveyard.

ArcelorMittal had not replied to requests for comments by the time of going to print.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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