On August 6 — Hiroshima Day — I participated in a groundbreaking event at the South African Museum in Cape Town entitled The Missing Link: Peace and Security Surrounding Uranium.
The event had been organised by the Congolese Civil Society of South Africa to put a spotlight on the link between Japan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): that the uranium used to build the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from the Shinkolobwe mine in the province of Katanga.
This was the richest uranium in the world. Its ore had an average of 65% uranium oxide compared with American or Canadian ore, which contained less than 1%.
The mine is now closed, but its existence put it at the centre of the Manhattan Project in the second world war. The Congo was a Belgian colony at the time and the Congolese suffered from the harsh colonial reality of racism, segregation and extreme inequities.
Following the war, the mine became a focus for the Cold War conflict between the superpowers. Today, freelance miners, desperate to earn a living and at severe risk to their health, still go to the site to dig out uranium and cobalt.
There was little in the way of health and safety precautions. Speakers at the Missing Link event told of the deformities and illness caused by working in the mine and living near it. Sylvie Bambemba Mwela spoke with pain of her grandfather, who had been poisoned by radiation and had a piece of brain coming out of his mouth.
People nodded in vigorous assent to the statement that when a miner went near a television, he caused severe interference with reception. There were sad references to genetically inherited malformations.
Poems had been written for the event, including Shinkolobwe’s Tear by 14-year-old Benina Mombilo. She quietly told a spellbound audience:
When the predator took Africa’s mines, he left behind death, poverty, conflict and war.
Christian Sita Mampuya observed thoughtfully that none of the people living in the Likasi area had been consulted on why the uranium was mined. Nor, he added, are there any records available about the impact on DRC of the exposure to radiation over the last seven decades.
The Power of Knowing the Past
Léonard Mulunda, a trenchant political analyst, insisted firmly that the Congolese must take responsibility for themselves, for their own welfare and government. But he noted that DRC’s lack of information about its past makes it difficult for the Congolese to plan for the present and the future. For this reason, he emphasised the significance and value of the Missing Link event.
Its importance was also highlighted this month in the US by Akiko Mikamo, the author of Rising from the Ashes, whose father Shinji Mikamo is one of the Hibakusha, who are the survivors of Hiroshima.