Life in toxic wasteland no child’s play

Lucas Misapitso casually holds a handful of poisoned earth in his hands. Behind him, the forlorn shacks of Tudor Shaft huddle helplessly against a toxic mountain of mine tailings that splits them in two. 

The shack where Misapitso lives is located a few metres away from the mine dump that obtrudes from the informal settlement, in Krugersdorp, like a menace.

The 24-year old grew up here and the mound of toxic soil that has been declared a radiological hot spot is an unwelcome, though familiar, neighbour for his community.

When it rains, the tailings flood into his home and those of his 2 000 neighbours. When the wind blows, residents of the settlement are forced to ingest its fine dust, and the dust billowing from the surrounding mine dumps that encircle the bleak community.

The mine dump in Tudor shaft is so toxic and radioactive that several government agencies have recommended the community be urgently relocated. But Mogale City has only relocated a handful of residents living on top of the dump.

Misapitso, like many other residents, has grown impatient and has spent the past year lobbying government agencies and departments to intervene.

He looks dapper in a smart red shirt, matching red pants and a red hat, a pair of brown sharp-nosed shoes on his feet. He has to look good.

He is on his way to a meeting with Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu to implore her to act on the plight of Tudor shaft. “I want to tell her how these mining companies came here, made their money and left – but not care about the suffering.”

Thanks to Misapitso’s lobbying efforts, the SA Human Rights Commission has launched its own investigation into the mining activities that “are alleged to cause harm to the well-being and health of the complainants.”

It has ordered the Mogale City municipality to provide it with a relocation plan, environmental impact assessment and other reports and records of any action taken by the municipality from the period it was first informed of the complaint.

Everywhere he goes, Misapitso carries a report by Professor Victor Tshivhase, of the Centre for Applied Radiation Science and Technology at the North West University.

In a study for the Department of Mineral Resources last year, Tshivhase recommended that residents be relocated to an alternative safe habitable area because of the high radiation levels.

Previously, radiation levels in Tudor Shaft [informal settlement] have been found to be 15 times higher than the regulatory limits. Studies, in 2010, by the National Nuclear Regulator determined that residents of Tudor Shaft are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of radiation.

The contamination, says Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, is not in dispute. “What is in dispute is the lack of action”, she says. “The dump did not fall from heaven.”

But Tudor Shaft is by no means unique. Across Gauteng, there are 1.6 million people living on mine dumps that are contaminated with uranium and toxic heavy metals, including rsenic, aluminium, manganese and mercury
But it’s here on the West Rand, argues Liefferink, where the toxic legacy of mining has hit hardest. Every day, more than 42 tons of hazardous dust from mine tailings enter the environment, generated through wind-borne and water.

She navigates the uneven terrain of the dump in an impossibly high pair of wedges. With a polka-dot scarf around her neck, Liefferink looks incongruous in the bleak surroundings. But
she has spent nine years, bringing hope where there is none and talking her crusade to Parliament. “I feel I’m a part of this community now”, she says.

Several years ago, Liefferink’s organisation quashed attempts by the authorities and Mintails, a local mining outfit to [unlawfully] remove the mine dump arguing it would cause more harm.

The Department of Environmental Affairs has now appointed its own radiation specialist to conduct “radiological and health assessments’, which are expected to be completed within six months.

But as government departments squabble over who must take charge, the community pays the price, laments Misapitso. Tudor Shaft is as old as democracy, he says, but its very existence is a symbol that democracy has failed the poorest of the poor.

Several studies have showed how exposure to high levels of radioactive uranium can lead to birth defects and brain disorders while the heavy metals in the waste are cancer-causing.
Community members complain of respiratory problems and skin lesions.

Another resident Gloria Mkhehlane, cradles her twin boys. She says: “they battle to breathe at night. I don’t know what to do. We need the government to help us but no one comes.”

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