Mine dump dust swirls around a man in the Elsburg area of Boksburg. Picture: Halden Krog
Mine dump dust swirls around a man in the Elsburg area of Boksburg. Picture: Halden Krog

Tens of thousands of poor South Africans living in the shadow of vast mine dumps around Johannesburg are being exposed to toxic substances such as arsenic, lead and uranium.

More than 200 mounds of earth contaminated with heavy metals, notably uranium, lie within sight of the city, says the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic.

They include the one close to where 50-year-old Thabo Ngubane tends his vegetables in Snake Park in the north of Soweto.

"Look at my spinach. That is the sand from the mine. The yellow one in the soil — it’s destroying everything," he says.

"When there are heavy rains, all the mine waste comes here and erodes everything. This month 22 of my baby pigs died … I think it’s because of the mine."

When the waste comes into contact with water, oxidation forms a dangerous solution.

The company responsible for the slag heap built a storage pool to allow contaminated water to evaporate in an effort to protect the neighbouring homes from pollution.

But the pool walls have been poorly maintained, allowing acid water to leak into Ngubane’s agricultural plot for much of the past year.

"I’m coughing all the time … my daughter also," Ngubane says, adding that he has no doubt that tainted vegetables and toxic dust are to blame.

His case is far from unique. Several other areas in Soweto have also fallen foul of Johannesburg’s mining legacy.

Twenty kilometres east in Riverlea Extension 1, Rose Plaatjies’s home is surrounded by three mine dumps.

A retired labourer, Plaatjies suffers from shortness of breath and depends on an oxygen tank — all of which she blames on the mines.

"The toxic sand affects a lot of us — I can’t breathe because of the dust," she says.

During the dry months of July and August, wind blows dust from the mounds onto the streets, coating laundry, sweeping into homes and contaminating food.

"In almost every street in this community, people are living on oxygen machines," says David van Wyk, a researcher at Bench Marks Foundation, a Christian nongovernmental organisation.

More than half of Riverlea’s residents claim to suffer from a cough, asthma, sinusitis or tuberculosis, according to a report published by Bench Marks.

"Our children have eczema, our children have eye problems … [a neighbour had] twins with undeveloped lungs — one has died," says Plaatjies.

Statistics show that Riverlea is an outlier.

Respiratory and cardiac illnesses are far more prevalent among the elderly in the area than in similarly poor neighbourhoods elsewhere, according to the South African Medical Research Council.

The council also found that the yard at the local school had abnormally high levels of lead.

"A lot of people suffer from skin complaints like eczema … as well as asthma," says a local doctor, who declined to be named.

But in the absence of any large-scale study, authorities are wary of blaming the conditions suffered by the local population on the waste heaps that encircle them.

"There are no studies that make a direct link, to our knowledge, to the exposure there and the health problems that people are experiencing," says council member Angela Mathee.

Such research would be the responsibility of the central government, which has not yet commissioned such a study, she says.

Efforts by the authorities to contain the contaminants have been described as slow and inadequate by the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic.

Niel Pretorius, CEO of DRDGold — which owns several mine dumps — has previously said on social media he "will remain sceptical about these claims" until he sees medical evidence.

His company nonetheless paid for plants to be grown on the face of 300ha worth of mine dumps in an effort to reduce the exposure of dust to the wind.

"It’s never worked. You must come here when it’s August. Then you’ll see — it doesn’t work, the dust is still here," says Plaatjies.

"The mine property people don’t care about the communities that are suffering. No one wants to be reliable or responsible for this mess."