Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect

New Solutions: The Drawing Board is a monthly feature produced by the journal New Solutions. Read more about it here.

Note from the editor of New Solutions: The Drawing Board: In the spirit of international solidarity, The Drawing Board has begun featuring articles from activists, researchers, and workers from around the world. It is our belief that we cannot effectively fight for social, economic and environmental justice in isolation, but instead must learn from and support one another. The parallels between Mexican workers' grievances and environmental catastrophes in Ethiopia are often striking, but more often forgotten. Through our monthly posts, therefore, TDB will highlight events taking place around in the world, and advocate for greater connectedness between worker and environmental rights movements in the global north and global south. Graduate student Andrea Zeelie kicks off this effort by writing about the severity of acid mine drainage in South Africa.

Acid mine outrage: How South African communities are affected by government and industry neglect

By Andrea Zeelie

Acid mine drainage (AMD) refers to the mixing of water with toxic chemicals such as those present in heavy metals, sulphates, and radioactive uranium, which leak from abandoned mine sites into dolomitic areas underground. The contaminated water penetrates ground water sources, which in turn leach into surface water sources. This can degrade water quality to the point that it is unfit for human and animal consumption or crop irrigation. Ingestion of this toxic acid water is related to increased health risks, such as cancers.

Such pollution represents arguably the most mismanaged environmental disaster South Africa has ever witnessed. Scientists and environmentalists have battled for action since 1996, when they first became aware of potential damage. The eastern, central, and west basins of the Witswatersrand are polluted, immediately affecting residents living in half-a-dozen surrounding communities.

Government action with regards to this disaster has been varied, lethargic and confusing: any response involves five departments, each with divergent interests. In an ideal world, industry would pay to clean up the devastating amount of AMD within South Africa, under government oversight. However, extreme government inaction has led to little payments and even less accountability.

Severely delayed action undoubtedly lies in the relationship between government and the mining industry. South African mines were previously operated by a cohort known as the Big Six, which included Anglo American/De Beers; Gencor/Billiton; Gold Fields; JCI; Anglovaal; and Rand Mines. Together, they controlled more than half of the country's economy. Their dominance waned, however, when former president Thabo Mbeki came to power: the focused shifted towards black economic empowerment, or BEE, ushering in a new wave of players comfortably connected to both the business and political elite. This second cohort could have imposed much-needed worker and environmental protections, neutralizing errors caused by their predecessors. Instead, they used their political connectedness to amass personal wealth; legitimate expectations from the country's electorate concerning accountability, transparency and governance failed to materialize.

A third cohort followed, with the country's current mining elite politically allied to the Jacob Zuma administration. One need only look to the pedigree of some of the country's most prominent mining directors to become suspicious of an all-too-comfortable link: Aurora Gold, for example, is owned and operated by Zondwa Mandela, Nelson Mandela's grandson, and Khulubuse Zuma, President Zuma's cousin. Both were recently charged for failure to treat contaminated water for months, as management had failed to supply the necessary chemicals. The charge only occurred, however, following a barrage of bad press surrounding unpaid salaries and the death of three mineworkers. While the Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica informed the National Assembly on 19 May 2010 that prosecutions of the two directors could go ahead, skepticism remains on whether government will ultimately prosecute "family".

Throughout the Mbeki and Zuma administrations, the lines between global mining consortiums, government, and black business have become increasingly blurred. Where acid mine drainage is concerned, governing documents such as the National Water Act, the Mine and Safety Act, the National Environmental Management Act, and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa are being chronically undermined by industry's ties to government. As a result of the country's post-democracy neo-liberal economic policies, continued dependence on natural resource extraction, and little distinction between the regulators and the regulated, the rights of South Africans and of the environment have become secondary to that of government officials' prominence and payrolls.

As it stands, only short terms solutions to acid mine drainage - if any at all - have been implemented. A Remediation Action Plan of the Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area was constructed by the government, mining companies, and civil society organisations. Since being published in the beginning of 2009, however, no remedial action has been seen.

A long-term solution is costly, with no one willing to accept the price tag. The 'polluter pays' principles applies, but with high turnover in mining management, the original offenders are often no longer present, making culpability difficult. Remediation therefore becomes the government's problem. Given that the government refuses to accept ultimate responsibility, action is deferred, with responsibility and consequences being placed on citizens.

However, activists and advocates are hopeful that strides may have finally been made, 14 years after the battle for action and accountability began. Earlier this month, criminal charges were laid against three cabinet ministers for their failure to act upon the continued pollution of the natural environment. The Agricultural Union of South Africa contends that by failing to address the severity of AMD, the ministers have failed to comply with the National Water Act. While Water Affairs Minister Sonjica did earmark R7 million ($887,000) for cleanup efforts, this is insufficient to treat contaminated water for even one month. The money has also yet to materialize.

What is required now is the continued exposure of the environmental damage, and prominent shaming of violators in the press and in public forums such as parliament, to galvanize the mines and government into action. Custodian organizations like the Agricultural Union of South Africa and the Federation for Environmental Sustainability must increasingly hold the government accountable, on behalf of all citizens.

Andrea Zeelie is pursuing her Masters in Public Health in Health Economics at the University of Cape Town. The focus of her dissertation is the political economy of acid mine drainage in South Africa.


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Govt people have yet to include the needs of the citizens above their personal need to accumulate wealth. Load shedding, poor drinking water, acid mines, sub standard housing for the poor, incitement to 'kill the boer', ' where is my machine gun', daily rapes and murders with little or no recourse, roads poorly maintained, schools under staffed and over populated classrooms, thousands of traffic police so egre to take bribes the real offenders get away scott free, businesses hire for political correctness rather than ability and qualification.
Some things to consider when we question our fathers ability to manage this beautifull country so its citizens can function without fear or favour...yeah right

By Peter McFie (not verified) on 28 Oct 2010 #permalink

In South Africa, many of the mining companies bribe the local municipalities to turn a blind eye towards the waste management of many of the mines in the area. As a result these waste management schemes are left unmonitored, which is the main reason why many of the communities are in danger. In terms of acid mine drainage when the water is stored in a designated AMD dam, there are certain protocol which need to be followed by the mining company before the water can be stored in the dam. For example an environmental impact study needs to be done before the dam can be built and once the dam is being built it needs to be lined and only certain types of materials may be used. Many companies do not follow this protocol as it is expensive and time consuming; thus it is much cheaper and less time consuming to bribe the local municipality to turn a blind eye. The short cuts taken by the mining companies in South Africa has had detrimental effects on communities surrounding the mines, as much of their water of these communities has been polluted by extremely acidic and even radioactive water through leeching of waste water into the water table. The pollution of water has effected the health of the people in the area who consume the water due to it being their only source of water. The neglect shown by the government and the unethical behaviour of mining companies is a clear representation of what is wrong with South Africa in the present day.

By Graeme Buckley… (not verified) on 02 May 2014 #permalink