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Thousands of South Africans Live Near Toxic Mine Dumps

Children jump rope at the Tudor Shaft squatter settlement near Randfontein, west of Johannesburg, South Africa, January 26, 2011.

Children jump rope at the Tudor Shaft squatter settlement near Randfontein, west of Johannesburg, South Africa, January 26, 2011.

A century of digging for gold has created a silhouette of mine dumps all around the South African city of Johannesburg. The legacy of intensive soil excavation in South Africa’s economic capital is toxic waste and radioactivity, posing serious health problems for thousands of South African living nearby them.

The rain has just stopped in Tudor Shaft, a poor township in Mogale City, a one hour drive from Johannesburg. Jeffrey Ramoruti walks on the muddy track amid the crowded shacks and points his finger toward an orange looking hill 10 meters away.

“This is the mine dump. It is not safe for the children to play inside because the soil is not suitable for the people," he said.

It is one of hundreds of mine dumps around this city of 3.2 million people.

Around this particular dump, a thin plastic strip fence is supposed to prevent Tudor Shaft’s 2,000 residents from entering the site. It is a dangerous zone: the radioactivity level here is 15 times higher than normal. It comes from uranium traces in the mined rock, where it stays until the rain washes it into the ground water and river systems - making them toxic.

It is estimated that more than one-and-a-half million people in the country live nearby radioactive mine dumps.

A few months ago, the local municipality relocated 14 households from Tudor Shaft to another place, further from the dump. Sixty-eight more shacks have been marked for demolition because they are considered too close to the dump.

But for the community, these markings are arbitrary, and most residents do not want to leave. Many say the authorities have no plan to relocate them. Tudor Shaft resident

“They tell us we are staying in a dangerous place," explained Elisabeth Koji. "But they didn't move us to a proper place. We want a proper distance. We want a road, toilets, electric and water.”

Many of the residents are also ignorant of the dangers. Children play in the dirt and become covered with the worrisome orange dust. Some pregnant women eat the toxic soil, which is traditionally believed to treat stomach pains.

Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink, who has been making the situation public for more than a decade, explains the potential health impact.

"There is a significant concern that there has been no health studies done in order to quantify the health impact upon communities," Liefferink. "It is, however, internationally reported that radioactivity will lead to genetic impacts. Chemical toxicity in uranium can lead to increases of leukemias, chronic kidney diseases and kidney failures."

Facing increasing pressure, the National Nuclear Regulatory authority came with bulldozers to remove the dump last July. But Liefferink says the community was not consulted, and that it only made the situation worse.

“We would have preferred that the communities were relocated before the removal of the radioactive waste," added Liefferink. "As the radioactive waste was being removed by bulldozers, it then destroyed the crust on the tailings which meant it liberated the radioactive toxic dust which now poses a risk for the communities because they were both inhalation and ingestion.”

The action was quickly suspended by a court action launched by Liefferink and the community, which want the problem addressed properly.

“The relief that we are seeking is the consultation with the communities, the relocation of the communities, a proper risk assessment being done, the proper environmental authorizations must be applied for and must be granted, must be authorized as well as the remediation of the footprint of that area,” said Liefferink.

The residents of Tudor Shaft are still waiting for the court decision regarding their case. In the meantime, the fence around the dump is still being crossed by people seeking shortcuts and barefoot children using the mine dump as a soccer pitch.