Radioactive city: how Johannesburg’s townships are paying for its mining past via The Guardian

Much of the waste from 600 abandoned mines around South Africa’s largest city is piled high next to residential communities – most of which are poor and black

Johannesburg’s mine dumps look strangely beautiful from a distance. Lustrously yellow in the sun, blazing red at dusk, their huge molehill shapes provide the city with its distinctive skyline.

Up close, it’s a different story. Rasalind Plaatjies has lived in the shadow of a “tailing” – as these piles of mine waste are known – all her adult life. Today, the 62-year-old grandmother from the city’s Riverlea district suffers severe respiratory problems. For 16 hours a day, she is hooked up to an oxygen tank, her lungs debilitated by dust from the waste heap.

“Sometimes I don’t have the energy to get up. I just have to stay in bed and do nothing,” she says. She feels fortunate, though. A number of her elderly neighbours have died from respiratory disease.

Plaatjies is one of tens of thousands in Johannesburg’s impoverished townships who are paying a high cost for the city’s rich mining past. More than 600 abandoned mines surround South Africa’s largest city, with much of their waste now piled up high next to residential communities – most of which are poor and black.

Residents here fear the wind most. When it blows, fine particles from these man-made dumps are carried up into the air and deposited on to residents’ homes. It is no ordinary dust, either: the residue of decades of mining, it can contain traces of everything from copper and lead to cyanide and arsenic.


An even more dangerous pollutant is lurking in Johannesburg’s mine dumps, however: radioactive waste. According to one university study, an estimated 600,000 metric tonnes of radioactive uranium are buried in waste rock in and around Johannesburg – around three times what was exported during the Cold War.

“[Johannesburg] is undoubtedly the most uranium-contaminated city in the world,” says Dr Antony Turton, a professor at the University of Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management.


A handful of randomised spot-checks reveal the extent of the pollution problem. For example, in a narrow run-off canal immediately opposite Soccer City, site of the 2010 Fifa World Cup final, van Wyk picks out the colours along the bank: red for iron, white for sulphur, green for copper, yellow for uranium, and so on.

The pH level measures 4.6: within the range for acid rain (neutral water has a pH level of 7). The figure for Total Dissolved Solids (a measure of minerals, metals and other insoluble materials), meanwhile, is 2,000 parts per million – four times higher than the guideline amount in the US.

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