"The problem with this mountain is you can’t run away from it,” Ronnie Kubeka says.
He sits in the bed of a bakkie and sorts a pile of rotting food for his pigs. Gesturing to the pale yellow expanse of mine waste looming behind him, Kubeka says that in winter’s windy season, dust blankets the area.
Kubeka and other farmers in the Doornkop informal settlement near Snake Park, close to Roodepoort, wear masks to evade the dust and say their animals develop sores and other skin irritations when the wind blows mine waste onto them.
While residents in Doornkop and many other communities across the country complain that nearby mining activities lead to health issues, litigation against polluting companies remains extremely difficult without a comprehensive, epidemiological study.
The scientific field of epidemiology deals with the distribution and causes of diseases and could be used to determine responsibility.
Bells clink as goats and cows graze within the tailings pile’s 500m exclusion zone. The top level of the area’s dirt is stained yellow by what appears to be dust from the nearby piles. The dissonant buzz of motorbikes is juxtaposed over the sound of farming, as rich youths ride motorbikes on the dumps, collapsing the hills and sending dust towards the community.
A walk through the riders’ playground reveals holes where locals dig radioactive sand to use in construction.
The mine waste makes its way into everyday life through farm animals, building materials and dust, but what impact it has on health remains undefined.
David van Wyk, a mining researcher at the Bench Marks Foundation, sits in a nearby Snake Park home. Bench Marks is preparing to publish a health study from Johannesburg and Soweto’s mining-affected communities, and Van Wyk speaks with residents who’ve brought their children who have health issues. A high number of children in the community were allegedly born with brain damage and other health complications.
“This is not a house,” Elizabeth Mdlalose says, explaining that residents cannot keep the dust at bay during the windy season. “It doesn’t even help to wipe here because soon there will be dust everywhere.”
Mdlalose holds her five-year-old granddaughter, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a developmental disorder that activists such as Van Wyk blame in part on heavy metals in dust blowing off the 270 tailings piles that litter the Witwatersrand goldfields.
The same pile of waste that affects the nearby farmers sends dust and sludge into this community. Local children swim in highly toxic evaporation pools on the dumps, and some have drowned there.
“Most people in the area understand and they know that the dust is affecting us,” Mdlalose says.
However, without proof of what causes the community’s health issues, residents can’t ask a specific company to help remedy the situation. Instead they rely on the government, an option they say works only just before an election.
That is where Bench Marks hopes its study can make an impact. Over the course of three years, the NGO has worked in and studied the communities surrounding the string of mine dumps between Joburg and Soweto.
Included in the study was a health questionnaire completed by 400 households in Doornkop, Riverlea, Meadowlands and Diepkloof.
The study, which is currently undergoing peer review, found that in all four communities, “cough” was the main reason for going to the doctor. There were also numerous reports of asthma, sinus issues and tuberculosis.
“South Africa has the most liberal constitution in the world, but it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. These people have a right to a clean and safe environment, so what are we doing about it?” Van Wyk asks.
However, because it lacks a control group - a community far from mining activities to use as a comparison - this study remains limited.
“It would require a proper epidemiological study to determine a direct correlation between tailings dust and respiratory problems in these communities, such as blood tests to determine the presence or otherwise of toxic substances that may also be present in the mine waste,” the study states.
Richard Spoor, the human rights attorney behind the asbestos and silicosis lawsuits aiding sick mineworkers, says those cases were possible because the relevant medical diagnoses had been well understood for decades.
If communities like Snake Park were to bring a class-action lawsuit, he said, they would face an uphill battle due to the lack of community-level epidemiological studies.
“Trying to get a firm diagnosis one way or another is very difficult,” Spoor said. “It becomes extremely difficult to make a diagnosis without epidemiological studies.”
With so many factors at play, communities provide challenging research subjects. The Bench Marks study, for example, identified health issues in Riverlea that could be caused by mine waste.
Those same issues could also be caused by the neighbourhood’s abundance of asbestos roofs and a high rate of smoking.
Spoor explains that communities have an even tougher time litigating against polluting companies because the law provides minimal precedents.
“We routinely negotiate solutions for mining problems, but the irony is that we don’t have a nice, legal remedy for it,” Spoor says. “That’s a pity because it also means the law never develops.”
Civil society had hope last year that the epidemiological study needed to kickstart this litigation might finally be completed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) partnered with local activists to gather hair samples from communities living near mine waste in the West Rand and to test for uranium.
Activists hoped the study could conclusively link health issues to gold mining, but it is now several months behind schedule, hampered by funding issues and results that differ among the labs testing the samples.
“It should be the government’s responsibility to do these studies. We are concerned that the government is shifting its responsibilities onto NGOs,” Van Wyk says.
Department of Health spokesperson Joe Maila said the department actively monitored areas at high risk for disease, and was “particularly interested” in mining- affected communities and correctional facilities.
“We are looking out for everything. The issues of HIV/Aids and TB are high on the agenda, but we are also looking out for the issue of non-communicable diseases generally,” Maila said.
He did not identify a specific epidemiological study in the works for the department but he did say the department conducts additional health screening in vulnerable communities.
But as gold and other sectors of the country’s mining industry contract, experts say communities may be running out of time to sue.
Spoor predicts that time will run out on receiving compensation when an area’s mines are all sold or abandoned. “Where are communities going to turn? Well, there’s nobody left to sue. The company’s gone, and you’re left high and dry,” he said.
Documents obtained by The Star, with some assistance from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, highlight a growing crisis prompted by the country’s questionable mine closure practices.
Of specific interest are closure certificates, documents given to companies by the Department of Mineral Resources and signifying a mine is rehabilitated and legally closed.
While 821 closure certificates were granted in the five years between 2011 and 2016, only about 5% went to large-scale mines. The remainder went to smaller and less invasive sites.
Neither Gauteng, South Africa’s major gold-producing province, nor Mpumalanga, its major coal-producing province, were proactive about closing mines. In that five-year period, the two provinces issued only 25 closure certificates - about 3% of all the certificates issued in the country - and zero went to large-scale mines.
However, the legislation governing mine closure is extremely progressive, and the government has the ability to mitigate this situation.
The documents show that at least R57 billion - and almost certainly several billion more - sits in funds for rehabilitation around the country. These funds are paid into by mining companies and are meant to serve as a security deposit in case the companies fail to complete environmental remediation.
Gauteng alone holds more than R10bn in financial provisions. The Department of Mineral Resources has the power to use these pools of money for rehabilitation.
For years, there has been talk of reclaiming the mining belt through remining the city’s waste piles, rehabilitating the area.