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My Johannesburg | The Nation

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My Johannesburg

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Drawing for the film Other Faces (2011), by William Kentridge

Drawing for the film Other Faces (2011), by William Kentridge

Once the mines were depleted and shut down, the mining lands became even more desolate, with rusting infrastructure strewn between the slimes dams as if by a capricious giant who had come out to play in his sandbox and then got bored and stomped off. The open shafts began to decant toxic water into the biosphere, and the abandoned miners’ houses and hostels became squatted by the poorest of the new migrants seeking refuge amid the discards of the modern city, the car wrecks and the scrap heaps.

Much of this empty land cannot be developed because it is literally undermined. The water filling the dolomitic rock cavities to the south and west of Johannesburg destabilizes the landscape to such an extent that the earth’s crust often collapses into sinkholes. I first heard about sinkholes from Granny Gertie, who had traded her grand piano—her only asset of any value—for some land that had turned out to be riddled with them and thus useless. I remember some terrible nightmares about our secure suburban redoubt collapsing into the earth, and needing to be reassured that we were far enough away from the mines not to have to worry about this.

All children, I imagine, express their unconscious terrors through the metaphors provided by their environments: if I had been Californian, I’d have been waking up with the house shaking; if Sicilian, covered in molten lava. We know how humanity’s tampering with the environment has exacerbated the risk of natural disaster, but Johannesburg is different, for its vulnerability is entirely man-made—a paradoxical consequence of the city’s very conception.

* * *

I think I have always known this, but I only really understood it when, in early 2012, I took a tour of the mining lands with a woman named Mariette Liefferink, Johannesburg’s own Erin Brockovich. Liefferink is a glamorous Afrikaner then in her early 60s, a former housewife and Jehovah’s Witness missionary who had found new meaning by exposing the way mining waste was contaminating the environment. With her always-reddened lips, her wardrobe of dramatic Chinese silk coats and her coronet of peroxided hair, she had become a familiar sight in the mining towns west of Johannesburg as she has picked her way tenaciously across the ghoulish landscape of mine dumps and runoff dams in stiletto heels, gathering research showing the effects of what has become known as acid mine drainage.

One of the major challenges in mining the Witwatersrand, she explained to me, was its very high water table: the name itself means “ridge of white waters.” And so the mining companies set up extensive pumping systems to drain their underground caverns, thus creating a huge “void” (the scientists actually use this word) beneath the city. For as long as they mined, they pumped, but as the older mines became worked out and shut down, the pumping stopped. The mines began filling with water, which became contaminated with salts, sulfuric acid and heavy metals—including uranium—as it interacted with both the exposed rock and the abandoned infrastructure. In 2002, this water began decanting through open disused shafts out of the Western Witwatersrand Basin; as a result, water of a foul, rust-red color (the result of the oxygenation of iron pyrite) was released into the region’s water supply, leaving a thick crust of solidified heavy metals known as “yellow boy” along the sides and beds of rivers and dams.

As we watched a sulfurous, rust-red cascade of water gushing out of a shaft outside of Randfontein on the West Rand, Liefferink cited studies demonstrating that this decanted toxic water was unfit for human or animal consumption or for agricultural use, and that it would eventually kill all aquatic life. Due largely to her activism, the state had recognized the severity of the problem and had begun an ambitious program to neutralize the water. Scientists in the field believe this will make a difference in the long run, but no one can say how long it will take, and Liefferink believes the matter requires urgent intervention. The only solution, she told me, was to begin pumping out the water from the mining cavities again—and to commit to keeping these pumps going ad infinitum.

Liefferink took me to Tudor Shaft, an abject informal settlement on top of a mine dump outside the township of Kagiso, where we met an elderly man covered in lesions: these, she said, could well be the result of exposure to radioactive uranium. Tudor Shaft was one of thirty-six areas in the province of Gauteng that had just been declared radioactive hot spots by the National Nuclear Regulator. All mine dumps contained tracings of radioactive uranium and cyanide, Liefferink told me, and the regulator had ascertained that more than 1.5 million people lived on top of them or too close to them and would need to be moved. As at Tudor Shaft, most of the people at risk lived in informal settlements: a toxic wasteland is an easy fit for surplus people.

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