The Haunting Legacy of South Africa’s Gold Mines
Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.
The name is derived from “happy prospect” in Afrikaans, and once upon a time, life and the gold haul were both good at the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine, 50 miles west of Johannesburg. But two years after the mine’s owners abandoned it because it was unprofitable, sewage runs in the streets of the old mining village, tailings impoundments cover nearby towns in dust, and illegal miners rule the abandoned shafts.
“I’m just going to take one or two potshots at them to keep them at a distance,” says Louis Nel, head of security at the now-abandoned Blyvooruitzicht. He raises his shotgun and shatters the afternoon calm with several blasts. A few zama zamas — illegal miners whose title means “We try! We try!” in Zulu — run for cover.
Blyvooruitzicht is but one of thousands of abandoned mines scattered across South Africa, many from the gold industry. With recently shuttered mines adding to the massive impact of those left derelict years ago, the country faces a growing environmental, health, and social crisis created by a withering gold industry and inadequate oversight.
South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources, or DMR, holds a list of 6,000 “derelict and ownerless” mines, which became the government’s problem over the years when the former owners disappeared. While the DMR slowly rehabilitates those mines— at a rate of about 10 per year — companies continue to walk away from operations such as Blyvooruitzicht, and both mining companies and the government are slow to accept responsibility.
In the meantime, millions of South Africans live around waste facilities and many deal with respiratory, skin, and other health effects that they blame on the mine waste piled in and around their communities.For the complete report, please see Yale Environment 360.