Inaction on waste condemns South Africa’s poor to life in toxic dumps


For years, Patience Mjadu smeared her face with the yellow sludge from the mining dump near her shack. She had seen others do the same. According to local lore, the chemicals were a good cosmetic.

Today her face is damaged and she realizes that the sludge was toxic and radioactive. When the wind rises and the air fills with dust from the mine dump, her chest tightens and she has trouble breathing. The thin walls of her shack, riddled with holes, can’t keep out the toxic dust.

South Africa for decades was the world’s biggest gold producer, and most of it came from here: the goldfields around Johannesburg, where the gold rush began in 1886. But while the world consumed the gold from here, authorities have largely ignored the legacy of toxic mine waste, which piles up in hundreds of radioactive dumps and dams that contain uranium and other dangerous metals near the homes of more than a million people.

“We’re sick of living in this dangerous place,” says Ms. Mjadu, a 46-year-old mother of four children who has lived in the impoverished shack community of Tudor Shaft for nearly 20 years, just metres from the radioactive dump.

“It’s very dangerous for children. The soil isn’t good for us. We need to move – we’re getting sick.”

Studies have found radiation levels in Tudor Shaft up to 13 times above the regulatory limit. And this is far from an isolated case. An estimated 1.6 million people in mining districts around Johannesburg live within a few hundred metres of radioactive sites.

Many of the mines were abandoned by their owners and nobody takes responsibility for them. Scientists and official commissions have issued warnings for decades about the health risks, but the risks were neglected by South African governments during the apartheid era and even after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Those at greatest risk are the poorest of the poor. They live in shacks and can’t afford to move. Many are pleading with the government to move them to safer places, but only a few have been relocated.

“Those who didn’t share the benefits of the mining and didn’t contribute to the pollution are the ones who are paying the price,” says Mariette Liefferink, an environmental activist who has been trying to help the 1,800 people of Tudor Shaft for years. “If you don’t have money, you have no choice – you have to live there.”

Uranium and other potentially toxic metals are among the main byproducts of gold mining. But the residents who live closest to the dumps are victims of a jurisdictional dispute between local governments, the national environment department and a public agency – the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) – all of which deny their own responsibility and point their finger at others.

Ms. Liefferink served on the NNR’s board of directors for three years until resigning in 2012 to protest its inaction on the crisis. While she and the South African environment department have insisted that the NNR must take responsibility for removing the radioactive soil or relocating the people who live near the dumps, the NNR insists that South African government departments must be responsible.

“Because there is confusion, nobody takes action,” says Ms. Liefferink, who is chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.

In one of the main mining regions, the West Rand district near Johannesburg, more than 42 tonnes of dust from mine tailings enter the environment through wind and water every day, one study found. “The people who live downwind and downstream are poor black communities – it hasn’t changed much since apartheid,” Ms. Liefferink says.

Victor Tshivhase, a professor who heads the applied radiation science centre at North-West University in South Africa, took measurements of radiation levels in Tudor Shaft last year. He found that every measurement was at least twice the international limit for annual radiation exposure – and some were as much as 13 times the limit.

“In the case of Tudor Shaft informal settlement, residences are continuously exposed to high levels of radiation,” his study concluded. “It is therefore recommended that the residents be relocated to an alternative safe habitable area.”

Tudor Shaft’s residents have reported a range of illnesses, including skin lesions, eye infections and respiratory problems. They are exposed to toxic dust in the dry season and toxic water flowing from the dump in the rainy season. But there has never been a proper health assessment at the site, so they don’t know the exact link between their illnesses and the radioactive dump.

Tudor Shaft was created in 1996 when the local government forcibly relocated hundreds of people to this site from another informal settlement a few kilometres away.

“I remember it well because it was so terrible,” Ms. Mjadu says. “The government broke our houses and took us here in trucks. It was supposed to be temporary, but it’s been years and years.”

Environmentalists have tried to warn the residents about the radioactive dangers from the tailings dump, but it’s been a difficult task. Even today, the residents grow pumpkins and corn in small gardens on the dump. There is no fence to prevent children from playing in the radioactive waste.

“I come here, I tell them they live in a dangerous place, and then I have to leave,” Ms. Liefferink says. “It fills me with hopelessness. I feel anger and absolute disbelief that this place exists.”

In 2012, acting on advice from the NNR, the local government and a mining company began removing the Tudor Shaft waste dump. About half of the soil was removed, but environmentalists were alarmed that it was being done without risk-assessment studies or consultations, and they obtained a court order to suspend it. While the government relocated 14 families that were living on top of the waste dump, it ignored others who lived just a few metres away. Today the community remains in limbo, still exposed to the radiation threat.

Margaret Molefe, 45, moved here in 2008 because she was unemployed and the shacks were rent-free. But now she fears that the radioactive dump is poisoning her three-year-old son, Sipho.

The boy is tormented by constant itching. He scratches his skin, all over his body, day and night. His mother said it began when he was crawling in the soil of Tudor Shaft as an infant. She has taken him to several doctors without finding a cure.

“I’m very worried,” she says. “It’s going to damage his mind. He’ll be slow in learning, because he’s always scratching and he can’t concentrate on anything. At night he is talking and crying and scratching, even when he is sleeping.”

When she first moved to Tudor Shaft, she didn’t realize that it was dangerous. “But after four years, I realized it was no good. I hear the soil has chemicals in it. I want to take Sipho to a better life, but I can’t afford to move.”

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