Mining built South Africa, but the country’s mining industry is dying. Pale yellow mounds of gold mine waste dot Johannesburg—called eGoli in Zulu, meaning Place of Gold—attesting to the promise of fortune, which built and now threatens the country. The country’s former breadwinner is manifested in 6,000 derelict and ownerless gold, coal, diamond and other mines scattered across South Africa.
The massive tasks of environmental and social rehabilitation fall to mining houses and government departments, neither of which are rushing to properly close these abandoned sites. Environmental catastrophes such as acid mine drainage and radioactive dust continue to mount, while several billion dollars float around in trust funds meant for environmental rehabilitation.
Thousands of former mineworkers find themselves out of work as mines shut down, resources run out and companies mechanize. As mines are shuttered, their largely migrant workforce is at risk of losing not only employment but also pensions, housing and access to clean water.
In a country with official unemployment rising above a staggering 25 percent, many people turn to illegal or artisanal mining, an underground industry with links to international, organized crime. This new breed of miners—called zama zamas which means We try! We try! in Zulu—is finding fertile ground for its dangerous activities in the country’s abandoned mines.
Journalist Mark Olalde investigates South Africa’s abandoned mines, their impact on the environment, community health and the local economy.