Toxic dust from an abandoned mine coupled with Covid-19 is a tinderbox

Michael Moloufi is “so, so scared”. “Many people are dying of Covid-19 in Snake Park. Almost every day we’re burying people,” he says. 

“We are scared for our lives, you understand? I don’t know how else to explain it. We really don’t know how we are going to do this.”

Moloufi, who has always lived in Snake Park, Soweto, stands at the gate of the abandoned gold mine dump that towers over the area. It’s a flimsy border that separates the township’s residents and the toxic dunes, which, divorced from their surroundings — the dilapidated farms, the scrapyard and the shack settlement — might suggest the white beaches of a coastal paradise.

But Snake Park is no paradise. For decades the residents have lived with the mine, which they say blows clouds of dust into their homes. Now Snake Park, formally known as Doornkop, is in the sub-district with the highest number of Covid-19 infections in Gauteng.

Last week, Gauteng Premier David Makhura linked “cluster outbreaks” on mines, and people moving between them and where they live, to the Covid-19 infections in the western part of Soweto. 

But in Snake Park, residents say it is the abandoned mine — and the health problems it brings — that has left them exposed to the ravages of Covid-19. 

Walking up the white slopes of the mine dump, Moloufi says he worries that if the virus continues to surge in the area “we are all going to die”.

“People in Snake Park do take this virus seriously,” the 29-year-old insists. Dust particles cling to his black-and-white mask. But, he says, people need to be taught more about Covid-19 so they know what to do when someone they know is sick.

Local activist Tiny Dlamini agrees. She scolds a group of youngsters for not wearing masks as they walk by.

“People need to be workshopped. People need to be visited,” she says, beads of sweat gathering on the bridge of her nose. The mine dump radiates heat. “But government does not visit communities like this one.”

Covid-19 is not the first health crisis to plague Snake Park. 

Dlamini took up the fight against the abandoned mine because of its effect on the health of people living near it. 

In 2017, the Bench Marks Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors multinational corporations, released the results of a survey of household health in four mine-affected areas in Soweto. Mine tailings contain heavy metals and chemicals and cause various illnesses, including mental health issues and Down’s Syndrome. The report found that more than two thirds of the respondents in Snake Park complained about respiratory problems, including persistent coughs, sinus issues, asthma and tuberculosis. 

This year, the August dust storms in Snake Park will coincide with the expected peak of Covid-19 infections in Gauteng.

Last month, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States underscored the relationship between “long-standing systemic health and social inequities” and Covid-19 infection in the US. 

Multiple problems: Activist Tiny Dlamini has taken up the issue of ill-health caused by the abandoned mine.

“Racial housing segregation is linked to health conditions, such as asthma and other underlying medical conditions, that put people at increased risk of getting severely ill or dying from Covid-19,” it noted. “Some communities with higher numbers of racial and ethnic minorities have higher levels of exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards.”

Jacqueline Matlola looks on as the neighbourhood children play “three toti” in the street — aiming a tennis ball at a stack of cans. Matlola played football in her youth and was often mistaken for a boy. Now a mother of four, she says: “I am always stressed: for myself, for my kids and for the community. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, so I say: ‘Only God knows.’ ”

Matlola says nobody has visited Snake Park to talk about the virus. “They don’t come. They don’t care about us,” she says, her arms folded.

Just last week an old man Matlola knows died of the virus. 

“It scares me. The only thing I know I must do is pray that God will help us — protect us.”

One thing Matlola and others in the neighbourhood have done to protect themselves is refuse to send children back to school. 

Mapule Mavhunga and Nokuthula Tsheole have been “locked up” since they heard of the pandemic. The sisters each take care of children with cerebral palsy, a suspected consequence of the uranium from the mine.

“I must be very cautious with this child,” Mavhunga says. One person living on her street has died of the virus. “I must buy sanitiser and wash her with Protex soap.”

Mavhunga says she is “110% scared” of the virus. She refuses to send the children to school. 

“It can be even three years. As long as this virus is around, they are going nowhere.”

Tsheole says she has become used to the idea of a lockdown, “as long as we can protect ourselves”.

Mavhunga adds: “It is up to each person. Because we can see the numbers are increasing. But some people don’t believe there is this pandemic. They don’t believe it. 

Jacqueline Matlola and other women have refused to send their children to school

“It is up to you. Stay in your house or just be careless about your life.”

Vuyisanani Phongoma, whose family farms goats on a smallholding at the edge of the mine dump, says the conditions in Snake Park — its poverty coupled with the effects of the mine and the surge in Covid-19 infections — are a tinderbox.

“We can’t breathe well. This mine is very dangerous. It’s toxic,” Phongoma says, adjusting his bright blue mask. 

Looking at the mine dump, now glistening in the afternoon sun, he adds: “It’s a bomb. It’s a nuclear weapon — and with this Covid-19 thing, it’s going to explode.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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