Johannesburg’s mining industry has been a mainstay of the city for decades, but its vast waste dumps are a huge threat – and Mariette Lieferink is leading the charge for a clear-up
Posted by John Vidal
Saturday 26 November 2011
We meet Mariette Lieferink in a McDonalds near Gauteng, on the edge of Johannesburg, buying a dozen sickly sweet drinks. She’s no one’s idea of a leading environmental activist. She wears a tight-fitting, scarlet, embroidered Chinese dress, high heels, and make-up. She is nearly 60, a mother of four, grandmother of two and she used to be a preacher. Now she is head of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, and works flat out to clean up the massively polluted mining areas of Johannesburg.
The city has been the centre of the giant South African mining industry since gold was found there in 1880, and it is surrounded by more than 400 sq m of waste dumps, tailing dams, toxic lakes, radiological hotspots, leaking pipelines, spillages, and gaping holes in the ground. More than 40,000 tonnes of gold has been mined from the Witwatersrand Basin in 120 years, as well as cadmium, uranium, cobalt, copper, zinc, manganese, titanium and other heavy metals.
Lieferink’s “toxic tour” starts on the main A28 road. The land we stand on is bright yellow and white, a deep crust of toxic waste from an old copper mine. In front of us is a brickworks making radioactive building blocks from the waste of another mine. In the distance are giant waste heaps from gold mines and below us run the shafts and tunnels of more than 120 deep mines, mostly brim full of millions of litres of some of the most toxic and hazardous waste in the world.
Climate change, she says, increases the volume of rainwater, allowing the mines to flood more frequently, and the water courses and rivers to become even more polluted. “The poorest [people] – who are confined to live near the dumps – are in the frontline. They are exposed to high concentrations of cobalt, zinc, arsenic, and cadmium, all known carcinogens, as well as high levels of radioactive uranium. In some cases, government-built houses are being erected next to radioactive dumps.”