The secret to Patience Mjadu’s beauty is in the bottle of Gentle Magic skin lotion she holds in her hands. It’s no ordinary skin cream though – but rather a mixture of toxic and radioactive mine waste and water that the grandmother smears on her face every day.
Mjadu swears by it. “It’s for a long time that I’ve been using this cream and I think it helps me a lot”, she says, dabbing the concoction on her face in her immaculately kept shack in Tudor Shaft, an informal settlement on the edge of Krugersdorp.
She collects the mine tailings from a yellow outcrop of mine sludge in Tudor Shaft where radiation levels have been measured at 15 times higher than regulatory limits, but she has never heard of radiation.
“I first saw other women in Tudor Shaft take the orange sand and use it for their skin problems. If I don’t have lotion, then I just mix the sand with water.”
The impoverished residents of Tudor shaft, named after an abandoned mine, are exposed to high concentrations of cancer-causing heavy metals as well as radioactive uranium, which could leave them susceptible to birth defects and brain disorders, according to Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.
A year ago, it was largely because of her activism that the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), in an unprecedented move, urged Mogale City to relocate Tudor Shaft. It moved around 24 families living on the outcrop but uncertainty persists about the fate of the thousands of residents that remain, and the potential health risks.
“It’s inconceivable that anyone would say mine tailings are benign or innocent”, says Liefferink, who believes work needs to be done to educate communities about the hazards of mining waste. “We all know it contains heavy metals, which are part of the processing process, that there are elevated levels of cadmium, cobalt, copper, zinc and uranium”.
The heavily pregnant Constance Makoloi, 19, stands in the maze of shacks that make up Tudor Shaft, and tells how she started eating the “cakes” made of tailings material after she fell pregnant with her first child four years ago. “I like them”, she says, in broken English. “I thank they are good for me.”
Stephan du Toit, a senior environmental protection officer at Mogale City, says it is doing all it can. “Suddenly if the municipality heard we must relocate 5 000 people, the first question we must ask is: where is the land. This (Tudor Shaft) is a legacy, which the municipality did not create but inherited.
“How are we going to determine what the radiation levels are, how to rehabilitate a mine or rework a slimes dam? “We’re uninformed as to the levels and conditions unsafe for the community and whether these conditions prevail. We want to clarify this in a meeting with the NNR but they always postpone.
NNR spokesman Gino Moonsamy disputes Du Toit’s claims. “We’ve been taking effort to try to engage with Mogale and trying to set up meetings for the last month and a half, but it is virtually impossible to agree on a meeting date”, he says, adding that women ingesting tailings or using them as skin lotion should be “tested for contamination.”\A recent Gauteng government report has found the 380 mine dumps and slimes dams that blight Gauteng are causing radioactive dust fallout, toxic water pollution and soil contamination, and other risks of ground instability.
The problem, says Liefferink, is that if the government sets a precedent as it has done with Tudor Shaft, it will have to move 1.6 million people living on toxic slimes dams or alongside tailings dams. These are, in the main, communities already battling HIV/Aids and malnutrition.
“We’re dealing here, not with a Hiroshima, but rather it’s a slow-onset disaster. No one will fall down dead immediately but the long-term exposure even to low-dose radiation may have severe health impacts.
“Radioactivity is difficult to explain. No one can see it.”
NNR report urges immediate action
The NNR’s Surveillance Report of the Upper Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area found that the thousands of residents of Tudor Shaft are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of radiation.
Ionising radiation is measured in units known as Sieverts. The report, which has been revised following criticism that its mathematical calculations are flawed, notes that “special emphasis” must be placed on the potential dose of 3.9 millisieverts a year (mSv/annum) calculated for exposure in Tudor Shaft. It used a public dose limit of 1mSv/annum.
“In terms of the NNR criteria, the elevated levels could lead to a hazardous situation and therefore requires immediate action to reduce dose levels and also to create awareness among informal dwellers of the radiological hazards that could arise from the current situation,” says the report.
Tudor Shaft is littered with mine residue and open shafts.
“When it rains, tailings dissolve and it enters the water”, says activist Mariette Liefferink. “Children play on these mine tailings. I don’t think anyone can disagree that this community is at risk.”