MOGALE CITY - Patience Pumlangadu's black skin is now a yellowish color. "I put this powder on my face to protect it from the sun," explains the South African mother of three.
Pumlangadu makes this sun protection herself by mixing water with bits of crushed rock she says are "good for your health."
But in fact these rocks come from a nearby mound of earth, made up of waste from an old gold mine. It was at the end of 2010, a British specialist, Chris Busby, found that the level of radioactivity here was 15 times higher than normal, and recommended that the residents of the township evacuate as soon as possible.
Situated in the municipality of Mogale City, this informal settlement with a population of 5,000, named Tudor Shaft, is just down the road from one of countless radioactive dumps that dot the horizon in the region of Johannesburg. For more than a century, the mines of Egoli, "the golden city" in Zulu, have allowed South Africa to become the top economic power on the African continent. However, it has left behind numerous toxic footprints.
In 2011, a report by the regional authorities of Gauteng, the area that surrounds South Africa's economic capital Johannesburg, confirmed that 1.6 million people were living in townships near to, or even in, one of the 400 zones marked affected by mining waste.
Mariette Liefferink has been sounding the alarm for almost a decade: "The residue from gold extraction contains uranium," says the head of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), a local environmental organization. By looking at recent analyses, these dump sites also contain, amongst other things, "aluminum, arsenic, mercury and copper," she adds.
In Tudor Shaft, an almost sulfuric odor wafts in the air. The residents say that they are having more and more difficulty breathing. Ill from tuberculosis, some of them fear that their health is worsening. There have not been any reported cases of cancer yet, although, how can we be sure when no one has conducted a study?
Responsible for protecting the population against the risk of radioactivity, South Africa's National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) recognized, in 2011, that there was a "potentially dangerous situation" and recommended that the residents be "re-housed to a more hospitable environment."
"As a precaution, we have already moved about 100 families away from the contaminated zone," confirms Nkosana Zali, spokesperson for the municipality of Mogale City, the settlement's jurisdiction area. However, on the site, we are told that in fact only 14 households have been moved, and that the recommended 500-meter security distance is not enough.
Contaminated land, contaminated water
A representative of the Tudor Shaft community, Jeffrey Ramiruti, points his finger at the Gauteng regional authorities who told him to move onto this land in 1996, when it was already strewn with spoil tips.
"The mine had only just closed, and my family, and 53 other families, had to leave the miners’ barracks to come here," he remembers. "The local government promised that it would only be a temporary solution and that we would soon have government housing. But we're still waiting..."
Since houses are still not available, a bulldozer was sent at the beginning of July to start demolishing the spoil tips. But the excavation of the site was quickly suspended: "We took the case to court because toxic land cannot be raked up without first conducting a study on the environmental impact," says Mariette Liefferink, who is also in favor of the re-housing solution.
The Australian company Mintails, which specializes in the extraction of gold residue and contaminated spoil tips, has been put charge of this operation. It has announced that the water has been treated to protect it from the toxic dust. "This is only cosmetic. Next we'll have contaminated water," Liefferink accuses.
Before the judge's final decision, the radioactive dump sites have been surrounded by a plastic security cordon, to prevent children from coming too close. "This land is dangerous; it could make my child sick," says 20-year-old Poppy Morebondi. But when we asked her if she knew what "radioactivity" meant, like many of the other residents, she shook her head.