Feisty northern suburbs granny takes up the cudgels for poor mining communities. She is also the recipient of the Eco-Warrior award at the inaugural Eco-Logic awards.
Mariette Liefferink clutches a well-worn sheet of paper; yellowing like gold, in her hands. It contains a quote by UK environmental journalist George Monbiot that she has read and re-read many times in her long and often lonely crusade for environmental justice.
“Victories can be achieved by small groups of local people and roving campaigners armed with a tiny fraction of their opponent’s budgets”, she reads of Monbiot’s description of the battle against the “new aristocracy”, or big business.
“They haven’t liberated the working class from oppression, but they have restrained the power of the oppressors.”
The 60-year old Liefferink, her blond hair tied back in a trademark plait, sees parallels in her work fighting for communities poisoned by more than a century of gold mining on the Witwatersrand.
“I cannot claim that I have liberated mining communities from their oppressors or from mining waste that will continue for hundreds of years, but I have given them, I think, a voice,” she says.
It is rare to catch Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, at home. The phone rings often as she sits in her neat ersatz Tuscan townhouse in Bryanston, worlds apart from blighted wastelands where she spends most of her time.
Her dress sense is as elaborate as the furniture that fills Ã¢â‚¬â€œ delicate porcelain vases and ornate gold tinged mirrors. Her embroidered Chinese dresses and spiked high heels have become her trademark in which she trudges through mine dumps and on her “toxic tours” with the government, academics and NGOs on the polluted West Rand.
“I won’t conform to the characteristic greenie image …wearing veldskoene”, she vows, somewhat defiantly, “I don’t object to that, but I will be my own individual person. In my whole life, I’ve never worn flat shoes. Perhaps I always overdress, but why should I now be false to what I truly am?”
Liefferink is not a “greenie”, though she is passionate about animal welfare, and her dog and cats are her companions. Rather, her passion remains with overlooked “brown” issues, and she identifies most with communities and a mute environment struggling against mining and industrial pollution.
“You know, in the process of saving the panda, the cheetah and the rhino, we sometimes overlook the people… I really think my motivation to do this is not because of green issues, but because I am motivated by social and environmental justice.”
Her work as an environmental whistleblower has brought her acclaim – and disdain – from mining heavyweights in the region.
Last week, Liefferink was the recipient of the Eco-Warrior award at the inaugural Eco-Logic awards, one of several awards she has notched in recognition of her advocacy.
“In body, mind and spirit Mariette is the archetypal Warrior Ã¢â‚¬â€œ fighting to protect and preserve our environment”, explains David Parry-Davies, the editor of Enviropaedia, the convenor of the awards.
Liefferink, he says, is playing a leading role in “exposing and demanding action to deal with the acid mine drainage (AMD) problem in Gauteng Ã¢â‚¬â€œ which many in government and mining houses were trying to ignore.
“This has been highly demanding of her time, intellect and energy which she has given freely, fiercely and effectively over a long period of time.
“Mariette has taken on a wide range of other environmental responsibilities- as she holds official positions on many environmental advisory boards, steering committees and management teams – all dealing with environmental challenges.
From early on, Liefferink, who trained to be a lawyer but never worked as one, has been armed with a strong spirit of social justice. She spent most of her life raising her four children, and working as a missionary.
“I breastfed for many years, and as a missionary, I would go house to house, five to seven days a week…I think that is perhaps why working among mining communities is not unnatural for me.
Her missionary work “was a good training ground”.
“I don’t feel intimidated by government officials or big business. I never speak down to people or up to people. All people to me are equal. I have very little fear of man. I think that is my background and where I developed that arrogant boldness.
“My father’s legal background and my family which had many lawyers, advocates and judges, formed a very strong sense of justice within me. If a person goes out of character to do something, that person deserves praise, but it’s part of me that I must see to it that justice is done.”
So when, in the mid 1990s, Shell announced to residents of upmarket Bryanston that it intended to build two flagship highway mega petrol stations, her sense of justice ultimately prevailed.
“In the beginning, it was basically just narrow self-interest, which is how I often think environmental campaigns start. When there’s a mining company, suddenly you become aware that it’s encroaching on your water, upon your land.
“I had a very beautiful house, which was often featured in magazines, with a very big garden. Shell wanted to build two highway Shell Cities opposite my house and they bought out 23 properties.”
Along with her neighbours, she fought its proposal. But after seven years, objector’s fatigue set in – and only she remained. Shell, she says, did all it could to sway her, even attempting to bribe her.
“Shell then said they will push their highway cities on to my neighbours and will build me an enclosed swimming pool, a gym, a squash court, and terraced gardens. I told them that by offering me a bribe they had transgressed environmental legislation.”
Liefferink was asked to speak at the preamble to the World Summit on Sustainable Development about her fight with Shell. On the eve of her talk, Shell capitulated, withdrawing its entire project.
“I still made my presentation and it was seen as one woman against Shell. I then realised I’m just an ordinary person, an old woman, and here I was successful against this multinational corporation, which was the biggest oil company in the world. I felt I can make a difference.”
It wasn’t long before she was receiving other calls for help. In 2004, 53 farmers from Wes Driefontein, one of the richest gold mines in the world, implore her to assist them as they could no longer irrigate their land, as Gold Fields had dewatered their aquifer.
There, she realised the ‘significant injustice” that dominates mining communities. “The thing is once you enter on a road, almost like a career, you invest so much in that you cannot turn back.”
Largely through her lobbying, the government has pledged to address the AMD crisis on the Witwatersrand, and in a precedent setting move earlier this year, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) ordered the community of Tudor Shaft, living on a radioactive mine dump in Krugersdorp to be relocated. But months later, few families have been moved.
Still she does not lose heart. “It’s only by raising awareness that politicians will act. And that is why I do believe, even though Tudor Shaft was just a cosmetic address of the problem, the acknowledgement that this is radioactive land, that it is inappropriate establishment of residential developments and the recommendation of the NNR of relocation, I think that is a paradigm shift.
“It’s the same with AMD. On the ground, we see no changes. The volumes of untreated AMD are no increasing with the rain…Like with an elephant, you don’t eat it with one bite, it’s bit by bit.”
Among her detractors in the mining industry, in the government and academic circles, she has been accused of being an alarmist.
“Often an activist is seen as not having any credentials. But what perhaps sometimes people overlook is that I hold positions in conservative organs of state.”
Liefferink sits on the board of the NNR and is an associate of water dynamics of North West University. She is also a member of the Section 5 advisory committee of the Human Rights Commission which looks at human rights violations caused by mining, and is a member of a steering committee to address the remediation of radiological hotspots.
Wearing all these different hats “can be very much of a dilemma”, she says. “But on the other hand, perhaps it seems there has been a paradigm shift, because the NNR is now of the intention to engage with communities in radiological hotspots. That is 120 years overdue. In academic circles, there is integration not only between the social sciences and the physical sciences, but integration even with activists.
“I’m finishing a paper on the anecdotal evidence of health impacts of mining waste within the Witwatersrand. The North West University will research whether this anecdotal evidence is in fact substantiated by physical and social scientific research.
Her activism and courage have had an imprint on her family. Her daughter, Simone, 20, a third year environmental science student, has completed two projects on her mother’s work. “My youngest son did AMD as part of his thesis as a civil engineer,” Liefferink adds.
Simone interjects. “My mom has probably been my greatest motivator to carry on with my degree. I’m so proud of her. But it’s more than that: it’s about her coming from a background where she hadn’t worked before, where she was a stay-at-home mom. All of a sudden she was thrown into this and has built it up from nothing.
“My life is consumed by this,” Liefferink reveals. “I have no holidays and weekends and perhaps this has become my total focal point in my life. But I have social time with my children. I look after my grandkids and that is a delight.”
That Gold Fields and Rand Uranium fund her to create awareness among communities of mining risks and hazards has drawn criticism, but Liefferink maintains that her integrity is not compromised.
“I’m not fettered in what I present. They don’t censor me. In the past two years, through this work, we’ve done 14 000 questionnaires, which will be used by North West University to do unique research on how communities want mines to remediate and restore their land.”
Hers is a never-ending struggle to find funding. “Corporates like to fund charismatic plant and animal species, while they continue to hide their impacts on communities.
“But green and brown issues are indivisible. You can’t just fund green issues and ignore brown, because eventually your rhino will have to drink from the rivers or streams that may be contaminated.”