A Dangerous Legacy
in Johannesburg

     A Dangerous Legacy
in Johannesburg

Gold: A Blessing
and a Curse

Manuel Dieterich

The largest gold seam in the world is in South Africa. When gold was discovered on a farm named Langlaagte in 1886, it triggered the so-called “Witwatersrand Gold Rush”. Within only a few years, Johannesburg, the former miners’ camp, grew to be the largest city in South Africa. For many inhabitants, the mining of precious metal meant work. For a few, the so-called “randlords”, it meant immense wealth. 

These days, mining is becoming more and more difficult because the remaining gold needs to be mined from ever deeper levels. Many mines have closed as a result. What remains are massive slag heaps and wastewater lakes containing toxic and radioactive residue. Only a few mining companies even attempt to regenerate and renature their former mines. The numerous loopholes in the lax rules have proven ineffective against the greed of the companies. To this day, the gold mines’ poisonous and radioactive legacy threatens the inhabitants of Johannesburg and its surroundings.

Soul City:
Life among the dregs

Soul City is an unofficial settlement to the west of Johannesburg that sprang up in 1996. The camp, built on a former slag heap of the Tudor Goldmine, had initially been planned by local government as an interim solution. The inhabitants were to be relocated as soon as possible to social housing (RDP-houses). But over the past 25 years, what was once the Tudor Shaft camp grew to be an unofficial settlement now known as Soul City. A 2011 census counted about 6,000 people living there. Conditions in the slum are notoriously difficult: there is no basic infrastructure, no access to clean water, no sewage system, electricity, or paved roads. The inhabitants have been trying for years to improve their conditions. But officials have repeatedly postponed changes, citing the “transitional character” of the settlement. Ironically, it seems as though official attempts to make the settlement permanent would not be possible precisely because of its contaminated surroundings.

What threatens us?

Life in Soul City seriously impacts the health of its inhabitants. Parts of the settlement are built on the original Tudor Goldmine slag heap. Not far away is another slag heap, one kilometer long and dozens of metres wide. The wind carries toxic dust from it in all directions, including into Soul City itself. The rain flushes hazardous materials into surrounding water sources and even contaminates the ground water. Numerous highly toxic and radioactive substances, such as uranium and heavy metals, pollute the whole area around the settlement.

Inhabitants of Soul City are permanently exposed to toxic substances and are hardly able to protect themselves. Most of their shack-like homes are built onto bare ground with no foundations. Children play on the surrounding hills. The people, living in poverty, plant crops and keep animals on the poisoned ground. The consequences are grave: many inhabitants suffer from health problems, including serious coughs, nose bleeds and skin problems. There is a significantly increased risk of cancer and liver damage.

INFO Risk of growing food

“In Tudor shaft there was no toilet, people they were just helping themselves wherever they can. And people used to call it Dunusa [means squatter], because they were passing with the taxis, people from the location [township with proper houses] making jokes, fun of our people here. Because they didn’t have nothing, they didn’t have toilet they just go into the bush and helping themselves.” (Lethabo, community activist, resident since 2000)

“We have been planting and eating it and it doesn’t kill us, people are planting and its fine. Maybe it will become a problem in the future and we will be having cancers, we think it is super perfect for us, but they are also not willing to make a place for us to relocate, so we will plant and eat. My mom, she is the one that likes doing that, she planted at the back, but she took them out because right now we don’t have money, she planted the pumpkins, potatoes and the mielies.” (Lesedi, lives in Soul City since 2011, studies at UNISA)

Who are we?

The repeated talk of the settlement’s “transitional character”, and politicians’ continual claims that something will change, have raised the hopes of Soul City’s inhabitants time and again, and have time and again left them in despair. This disregard for their feelings resulted in increasing conflicts about how best to deal with the old mine.

Some people demanded that the residents should be relocated to social housing as soon as possible, as originally planned, especially because the living conditions continued to be so dangerous and difficult. Others, however, were suspicious that the local government and the mine owners only wanted to evacuate people from the site to allow for more digging for the remaining gold. They pleaded for the site to be made official, to be incorporated and improved.

Others couldn’t make any sense of the conflict between the two groups. They were pessimistic and expected that the past would simply repeat itself. People in power would carry on stalling things and delay the improvement of their lives. They believed that nothing would change in the end.

Comparison Emotions and
Threatened Orders

What do we need?

The many years of waiting, with nothing happening, have led to disappointment and disillusionment. The initial belief that the settlement was transitional has given way to pessimism among the residents that they will probably never move to social housing in another location, nor be able to live where they are in safety. Hardly anyone in Soul City looks to the future with confidence, and very few still believe in the power of political change. There is rampant corruption in the country, which most people blame for the political failure. People in positions of power prefer to enrich themselves and hand social housing to their friends, while avoiding conflict with the powerful mining companies. The people of Soul City feel like second class citizens, left to their own devices. Change would require political pressure, but how could that be achieved?

Voices from Soul City

“Soul City lost the game, now there is no promise, no hope anymore, we will die here. There is no budget anymore left for new houses, so we won’t get any house.” (Oni, community leader, resident since 2001, ANC member) 

“Our aim for Soul City is clearly to formalize the place. The old major, that passed away, had already agreed to formalize it and had plans to do so, but now the new major says he needs some time, because he is new in office. But I think it will come, it’s only prolonging the process.” (Katlego, resident of Soul City, DA member) 

“We are poor, we are not working, we are waiting for the RDP houses.” (Dona, EFF member, owns a small tuckshop)

“Nothing changes here. It’s not a right place to stay. The kids are suffering here. For change I have to move out of Soul City.” (Dikeledi, mother, resident of Soul City since 2001) 

“There is no guarantee you see, so I can’t say I guarantee that very soon we will be gone. No, we are here to stay, we tried to complain but nobody is listening to our grievances.” (Lethabo, lives in Soul City since 2011, studies at UNISA) 

What should we do?

After the turn of the millennium, residents began to organise themselves. They also turned to the local environmental organisation “Federation for a Sustainable Environment” (FSE). This organisation offered considerable support to local efforts, partly by courting the necessary media attention or by submitting applications to local officials. They also supported national and international research about the environmental conditions and the residents’ health. The FSE also organised local information events, so the middle-class residents of the neighbouring Mindalore were alerted to the issue and could support the struggle.

With the help of the environmental organisation, the residents were able to achieve at least two goals, at least in part. Authorities removed parts of the Tudor slag heap. Furthermore, most residents in the most seriously affected part of Soul City have been moved to social housing. For most of the remaining people, it seems clear now that they need to fight politically for the official development of Soul City if they want to have any hope for the future.

Audio Protest and
activism against
the Threat
00:00 — Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), one of the biggest environmental organisations in South Africa (voice acted))
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