YMHC #12: Unravelling the Enigmatic Tale of the Witwatersrand – by T. Ndaba

Unravelling the Enigmatic Tale of the Witwatersrand: Delving into the Intricacies of Mine Dumps and Townships

by Tholithemba Lorenzo Ndaba, Contemporary History Ph.D. candidate at the University of Groningen, t.l.ndaba@rug.nl 

The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand region in 1886 resulted in a significant wave of migration, as mining provided underground opportunities for many marginalised black South Africans and it also ignited the development of various industries. Consequently, the surge in population raised crucial concerns about land and housing in the area. In response to the overwhelming influx of people to Johannesburg, the apartheid government implemented laws and policies, notably the Group Areas Act, No. 41 of 1950, with the intention to enforce racial segregation and entrench inequality. The industrial gold mining sites transformed into townships, becoming living spaces for marginalised groups in an attempt to address the challenges related to land and housing, shaped by the apartheid government’s policies. Peša and Ross (2022) aptly argue that the environmental history of mining remains under-investigated or largely unwritten in many parts of the world. I would like to emphasise that in the context of South Africa, specifically the Witwatersrand, it is not solely the environmental history of mining that is significant but also the interconnected environmental history of mining and townships. The environmental history unveils a saga of irreversible damage wrought by mining’s extraction phases, intricately woven with the threads of spatial, economic, and technological progress. Now, I assert that the environmental history of mining and the evolution of Witwatersrand’s townships are inextricably linked. These townships, born amidst environmental degradation, bear the indelible marks of a development forged on the crucible of ecological sacrifice.

Displayed above is a captivating snapshot, capturing the essence of Ghost Town in Diepkloof. Amidst this visual narrative, the backdrop showcases the remarkable presence of Mooifontein 225-IQ mine dump, lending an intriguing perspective to the scene.

This contribution illuminates’ narratives intricately tied to the presence of mine dumps and the lived experiences of township residents. These narratives serve as a clarion call, magnifying the imperative and significance of delving into this juncture. Within this contribution, the phrase ‘Seek & Destroy’ is invoked, encapsulating the relentless pursuit of gold in the Witwatersrand – a pursuit that, even in its figurative sense, has unfurled a tapestry of detrimental consequences. The segment encompassing ‘The Golden Ghetto’ and the subsequent section contribute practical insights that succinctly encapsulate the findings of my research.

Mining and Townships: a socio-environmental perspective

As mining operations expanded, they left a profound impact on the environment, altering the landscape and degrading natural resources. The extraction of gold and other minerals often involved deforestation, land degradation, and the release of harmful chemicals and heavy metals into the soil and water sources (Rosner and Van Schalkwyk, 2000). These environmental consequences not only disrupted ecosystems but also had far-reaching effects on the health and well-being of the communities residing in the nearby townships.
The close proximity of townships to mining operations and mine dumps exposed their residents to numerous environmental hazards. Air and water pollution resulting from mining activities contributed to health issues, including respiratory problems, among township inhabitants. Additionally, improper waste disposal and the presence of toxic substances in the soil and water posed severe health implications for the communities.
The historical establishment of townships near mining areas during the apartheid era reflects a deliberate spatial planning strategy that perpetuated racial segregation and inequality, (Parnell & Beavon, 1996; Forster & Clark, 2020; Bond, 2021). The legacy of apartheid spatial planning endures, continuing to shape the environmental conditions and challenges faced by township residents to this day.
Throughout my Master’s and Ph.D. research, my fascination with the townships and the experiences of their residents constituted an integral part of my daily reality. Exploring the historical narratives surrounding township living has not only revealed profound connections to the oppressive apartheid colonial government and white supremacist capitalists, but it has also underscored the complex interplay between human activities, environmental degradation, and social well-being in these regions.

‘Seek and Destroy’

The title ‘Seek and Destroy’, a song in SZA’s SOS album (2022), suggests reflection on the devastating impacts of love. However, the focus here is on delving into the intended and unintended devastating consequences of industrial gold mining on both the environment and the communities in the Witwatersrand region, particularly the townships.
The pursuit of gold in the Witwatersrand has had a profound impact on the landscape, resulting in extensive damage and vast hollowed grounds. This transformation has given rise to a new dimension, where underground sand has accumulated into waste mounds, which, in my childhood, I mistakenly perceived as mountains.
In addition to the evident environmental impact, ‘Seek and Destroy’ also draws attention to the experiences of black mining labour in the Witwatersrand townships. It sheds light on the detrimental conditions faced by many black individuals who were recruited for work in the industrial gold mines, often subjecting them to hazardous and exploitative work environments. These adverse conditions extend beyond their working environments and also affect the living conditions imposed upon them in the townships. (Stuckler, Steele, Lurie, & Basu, 2013). For instance, a significant number of black miners who were enlisted felt enthusiastic about working in the mines, as they perceived it as an appealing opportunity. Nevertheless, the experience of working in the mine shafts had adverse effects on the well-being and health of many individuals.
Moreover, ‘Seek and Destroy’ alludes to the historical expansion of the Witwatersrand’s economy, which necessitated a growing labour force in the townships. As a response, black individuals were compelled to live in deplorable environments, often in close proximity to mine dumps. These areas are characterised by toxic soil containing heavy metals that have historically caused the deaths of many underground labourers. Yet according to Iyaloo, Kootbodien, Naicker, Kgalamono, Wilson, and Rees (2020), these toxic environments continue to pose a slow but persistent threat also to those living in the surrounding townships. For example, numerous black individuals residing in the township ended up there due to the government’s response to the housing crisis at that time and the implementation of the Group Areas Act. While obtaining a house could be seen as a positive development, the environmental conditions of these housing locations turned out to be harmful, particularly concerning people’s health, well-being, and safety.
The interconnected environmental history of mining and the experiences of the township communities in the Witwatersrand underscores the complex relationship between industrial gold mining and its consequences on both the environment and the lives of the people residing in the townships. Understanding these interwoven narratives is crucial in addressing the challenges and seeking sustainable solutions for the well-being of both the environment and the communities affected.

The Golden Ghetto

In my ongoing Ph.D. research, I have focused on investigating various mining communities located within the townships of the Witwatersrand region, stretching from East Rand to the West Rand (Penrose, 1997). Deliberately selecting three distinct sites—one from each end of the stretch and another in the middle—I have embarked on a meticulous exploration of the historical and environmental narratives surrounding these areas. Through oral history interviews with respondents and thorough analysis of available archival material, I have unveiled a diverse range of perspectives, with the residents attributing varying significance to the land, water, and waste in their surroundings.
The research sites I have chosen encompass Grootvlei Proprietary Mine, which is situated in Slovo township and Payneville, Springs, Mooifontein 225-IQ located in Diepkloof, and Blyvooruitzicht Mine nestled in Khutsong. Each of these locations possesses a unique historical context and have been deeply influenced by mining activities. In my argument, I contend that the three meticulously selected sites imbue distinct meanings into their respective landscapes, water bodies, and waste environments. Despite these unique orientations, a common thread of suffering emerges across these communities – their experiences tainted by the burdens of land, air, and water pollution. This affliction takes on distinct forms: Diepkloof grapples with the insidious presence of air pollution, Slovo and Payneville contends with the weight of water pollution, while Khutsong’s challenge lies in land subsidence. Through preliminary research, I have observed that the inhabitants of these sites hold a profound connection to the waste and water in their environments.
Moreover, these three sites collectively represent a diverse range of communities, each of which includes significant populations of marginalised groups. By examining the distinct experiences of these communities, I aim to shed light on the intertwined narratives of mining, environmental degradation, and social dynamics within the townships.
In the following section, I provide a brief narrative of each of the different sites, offering a glimpse into their historical significance and the unique challenges faced by their residents.

Confront the Choice of Asphyxiating Amidst the Swirling Dust or Descending into the Depths

A visual representation illustrating sinkholes in Khutsong, resulting in the sinking and deterioration of properties and roads. This phenomenon is predominantly attributed to historical mining activities in the region.

Based on preliminary findings from oral history interviews and archival research, it has been discerned that the residents of Diepkloof were predominantly individuals forcibly displaced from Alexandra township, with a smaller contingent originating from Sophiatown. The interviews offered captivating glimpses into the historical state of Diepkloof’s mine dump, characterised by a lack of vegetation, and its profound impact on the community due to the pervasiveness of dust (see, Tand & Watkins, 2011; Mpanza, Adam & Moolla, 2020; Maseki, 2013; Dudu, Mathuthu, Manjoro, 2018). Interestingly, current revegetation schemes appear to have alleviated some of these concerns. In the past, interviewees implemented various measures of what I would personally describe as ‘micro environmental activism’ to cope with the dust’s adverse effects by employing measures such as sweeping their yards daily, sprinkling water in the yard, and using old cloths under the door to prevent the dust from entering their homes.
Similarly, in Slovo, Springs, participants shared their backgrounds, revealing their origin from Payneville, an informal area in close proximity to Grootvlei mine. Interviewees in Slovo, a township established after democratisation in 1994, recounted their encounters with the mine dump’s dust and noted observable changes in Blesbokspruit, a significant and protected watercourse in the region. They, too, resorted to ‘micro environmental activism’.
In Khutsong, Carletonville, a township developed to accommodate a substantial population of black miners, the research and interviews displayed remarkable alignment. The prevailing concern in this township revolves around sinkholes resulting from past mining activities, reflecting the enduring impact of historical mining practices on the landscape.

This research argues for expanding notions of ‘environmental history’ to also encompass ‘social history’ of township inhabitants. The effects of mining on the environment cannot be disentangled from the social histories of township marginalisation and (from an environmental justice perspective) that the two often reinforced each other. This research also suggests that democratisation will not provide easy answers as environmental inequalities are deeply entrenched in Johannesburg’s topography.


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Cite this blog post
LIM COORDINATORS (2023, October 12). YMHC #12: Unravelling the Enigmatic Tale of the Witwatersrand – by T. Ndaba. Labour In Mining. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qwej

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1 Response

  1. Tholwana says:

    This was beautifully written. The research was extensive, insiteful and articulate. I love how the SZA reference was integrated in this piece to still relate with today’s culture and it gives me a sense that the researcher is of a younger generation however could still articulate this piece authentically. Bravo! It was absolutely worth reading.

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