The signs of trouble started soon after Luciano Williams was born. When he was only one month old, he suddenly stopped breathing. It’s a moment his frightened grandmother, Ann, won’t ever forget. Little Luciano was lying in her arms: “I saw his eyes turning in his head. He couldn’t breathe. I was so scared. I asked his uncle to run to get a mirror to hold it in front of his mouth. But there was nothing coming out,” remembers the 60-year-old.
The relatives ran a few blocks from their small asbestos house in Noordgesig, Soweto, to wait for a taxi, holding the deathly quiet baby in their arms. Fortunately, a friend drove by and rushed them to the nearby Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital where the baby would spend two months clinging to life.
“They found out that one of his lungs wasn’t developed properly and he had a touch of TB,” says Ann, a tiny woman whose kind face is heavily- lined with worry. But that was only the start for Luciano, now seven, who has spent his young life in and out of hospital, and has to use a ventilator to help him breathe at night.
Ann, who grew up in Noordgesig and raised her children here too, wishes she could move away, but the family is too poor to even afford winter clothes for the children.
“Early last year, the sisters at the hospital advised us to take Luciano out of primary school. It’s made out of asbestos and they were worried he would get more sick. They also told us that if the dust is blowing too much from the mine dumps here, that we cannot allow him to play outside or he will get more sick.” Their meagre home is at the foot of the Crown Mine tailings storage facility, which rises large and yellow in the winter sunlight. A few metres away, a pool of raw sewage in a local wetland festers near their home.
“On a windy day, it’s terrible here, with all the dust from these mine dumps… and the smell from the sewage.”
For Luciano, the future looks uncertain, though he has returned to school this year. A recent report from his doctor at Rahima Moosa states that Luciano is a “patient known to our clinic” requiring home oxygen for a chronic lung disease.
“The oxygen is required, as he’s had many lung infections as a young child.” He coughs slightly in his threadbare T-shirt and shorts, as a cold wind blows through his granny’s icy home.
“This child is always running in the streets,” says Ann.
“I still can’t sleep because I worry he will stop breathing.” She shows the tiny disheveled shack where he sleeps with his mother in Ann’s dusty backyard.
For Teddy Snyders and Hector Jacobs, two lifelong residents of Noordgesig, Luciano’s poor health is evidence of the “toxic wastes from hell” that its locals and neighbouring Diepkloof and Orlando East’s residents are allegedly subjected to. This includes continuous spills of raw sewage, acid mine drainage from old mining activities and mine dust that billows from the region’s encircling mine dumps.
“There are all kinds of stuff in the dumps such as uranium, arsenic, radon, silica, nickel and zinc,” says Jacobs.
“When you mine that here, it affects the community and causes all kinds of respiratory problems, defects and cancers, which we see in residents here… When the wind’s blowing badly in winter, you can’t even see your neighbours’ houses. That dust gets into all our houses.
“Some of the people here don’t have lungs left, or some only have one lung. Most of the people here have asthma and other breathing problems. Children have deformities,” he claims, “and the sewage spills are an ongoing issue, and have been for 20 years.” Three streets away from the Williams’s house, Tyrone Hughes, a thin, withered asthmatic, collapses on his sagging bed, and reaches for his oxygen.
The 71-year-old has just tended to his vegetable garden, grown in the shadow of the looming mine dump, near the sewage-contaminated wetlands. Hughes reveals how he buried his sister in November. Like him, she also relied on oxygen. Three other relatives, who lived with him, all with asthma, have also died in recent years, he says.
“If I don’t use my machines, I can’t breathe,” he starts to cry. If there’s anything that happens to me, then I’m the last in my family. We are used to this dust, and it’s not so bad all the time, but the sewage, jis’ – that’s a terrible smell at night.” Joburg Water, for its part, says the recurring sewage problems are caused by residents who are trying to retrieve valuable items.
“Our records indicate that technicians have been attended to no less than 71 sewer blockages and leaks in this particular area since the beginning of this year. Part of the solution lies in how the residents treat the sewerage infrastructure.” Niël Pretorius, the chief executive of DRDGold, which operates the Crown facility, blames “reckless” local authorities and developers in Noordgesig for allowing development so close to its tailings storage facility.
“The Chamber of Mines guidelines are such that each tailings deposit should have a 2km buffer zone surrounding it, where no human settlement should be allowed.
Subsequently, and ultimately, this was reduced to 500m by the-then Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment in 2002,” he explains.
To illustrate this, he says studies show that 38 847 households in Noordgesig in 1952 grew to 95 109 in 2008 within the buffer zone surrounding the Crown tailings storage facility.
But since 2012, DRDGold has spent more than R252-million on controlling dust in the Crown complex “particularly for the benefit of households and businesses in the area”.
“Wind patterns in the area mean the dust is generally blown away from the houses, hence dust-fall in the residential area seldom exceeds 300mg/m³ per month.
By law, dust fall should not exceed 600mg/m³ a day in a residential area.” He says that until his firm’s removed the mine dumps, which have been there since the 1880s, it remains “committed to suppressing dust” using water bowsers, water spraying and irrigation on exposed mining surfaces, and netting, to reduce wind velocity and support vegetation growth.
“In 2015, we vegetated a total of 34ha at the Crown complex, and we’re on track to complete the programme there in 2022.” It also employs mining methods to reduce dust, such as mining sand dumps into the direction of the prevailing wind to halt exposure of open slope faces, which is “yielding good results”.
It conducts a monthly dust monitoring programme, keeps dust complaint registers, and holds quarterly dust forum meetings with communities and independent academics.
A report in 2014 by the National Nuclear Regulator showed the Crown facility was of “low radioactivity”.
DRDGold, says Pretorius, “remains committed to continuously improving the quality of life of the residents of Joburg” by “reducing the impact of our operations on the environment” and “fixing the mistakes the industry’s made in the past”.
In her family’s small, neat home in Noordgesig, Mandy Hanslo dotes on her 71-year-old father Norman, who, like her, grew up here. He uses a ventilator too.
“When my dad is not well, sometimes he has to sleep with his ventilator the whole day. A few weeks ago, he was coughing up blood. He also has heart problems,” she says.
Norman smoked for 45 years, but more and more she questions if that’s the only culprit.
Her asthmatic mother, Beuhla, who also grew up in Noordgesig, died of a lung haemorrhage and also used a ventilator.
“My sister’s son also has asthma, but when he moved away his asthma seemed to get better.” A few streets away, Cheryl Brecht lovingly holds her severely disabled adoptive son Michael, 7, as he squeals in her arms.
Born with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, he has never walked nor spoken.
His biological mother, who lived in Noordgesig all her life, died of bronchial related complications in 2011.
“There’s a lot of health problems in this area. But we don’t know why.
You can’t say it’s this or that, but you do wonder,” she says, kissing Michael’s enlarged head.
 For the full DRDGold response, please see www.iol.co.za