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When a 9 year old child passed away because of blood cancer and there was talk that this may have resulted from the practice of eating soil from a tailings dam, we, EEO Monitors, saw a need to research this and find out what was really happening. We learnt that there was a practice, mostly among women, to eat soil from the tailings dams as a substitute for medicine.
The tailings dam is recognised by the name of Vlakfontein 130-ir and is situated inTsakane an old Anglo Gold platinum mine. The tailings dam is near the communities of Langaville Ext 5 and 6, Tsakane, Barcelona, KwaThema Ext 3 and Marikana informal settlements. Even though the place is in the veld, people still walk the distance to go and dig soil there. The tailings dams are not secured and easily accessible to people.
We divided into 4 groups. The first group went to interview people who dig the soil, the second group interviewed people who sold the soil, the third group interviewed people who consumed the soil and the last group interviewed community health care workers.
We found cases where people are sick because of the soil and that it had terminal side effects that show up in the long run. The sad part of this is that a lot of people do not believe that their “chocolate” was addictive and had dangerous chemicals in it.They believe it only when something very bad happens to them or to their loved ones.
People who consume the soil
First we spoke with consumers of the soil. Our monitor, Qedusizi, interviewed a diabetic person. She found a 33 year old women lying on her death bed. The women had two children and lived in her parents’ house with her siblings and their children. She learnt that the woman had been eating the soil for 2 years and she was recently diagnosed with diabetes because the soil formed starch in her pancreas. The woman bought the soil for R2. She eat the soil every day and bought 2 packets 3 times a week.
The woman did not want her name to be mentioned. She told Qedusizi “I was constipated and decided to go to the clinic and I was given stomach pills and something for constipation but they didn’t work. I tried the soil. The soil tasted like Milky Bar chocolate but a bit rich and it would take away any craving I had for anything I couldn’t afford. It satisfied my desires” she added. However because the pains did not stop after taking the medication, she returned to the Kwa-Thema clinic and that’s when she was referred to Pholosong Hospital for x-ray.
“The x-ray results showed that I had something in my pancreas and the doctors asked me if I eat any kind of soil because such problems are related to eating any type of soil. I confessed that I eat white soil from tailings dam” she added. She mentioned that the doctor said that the soil had formed starch in her pancreas and her sugar levels were not corresponding as normal to her body. She was then given insulin and diabetic medication to help with the sugar levels. “If only I knew about the dangers of the soil I would not have eaten it in the first place because now I am suffering with a chronic disease that might cause me cancer.”
The most amazing part is that some women who consume the soil have not reported sickness as yet. “When I eat the soil every day I do not get periods so I buy the soil when I do not have money for pads” said a high school learner. One woman said that she ate the soil for leisure as it already was her habit and she just could not stop buying the soil because it had done no damage to her.
People who dig the soil
The second team went to the Vlakfontein 130-ir Tsakane tailings dam where they found a man digging for the soil. He poured the big pieces into his wheel barrow; he looked like he was in his late 40’s. The man did not want to tell them how much they sold the soil for or who they sold it to. The man mentioned that he was not working alone; he was working with five other men and was recruited by his friend.
“We sometimes fight over the soil because other people come from nowhere and dig at our spots” said the man.
We learnt that the selling of this dangerous soil is a result of unemployment; “I sell the soil for a living, I also want to buy bread for my children” said the soil seller, “if I were to get a job I would quit selling the soil” he added. The man has a clientele that he sells to. He said that he makes R1200 a month, depending how many orders he received from his clients.
He was not aware of the dangerous chemicals contained in the soil. When looking at his skin you could spot a rash on his hands with white residue, something that looked like eczema. He mentioned that he is taking medication for it but he is not sure if it is a result of digging the soil or something else.
The People who Sold the Soil
The third team went to Kwa Thema CBD and Springs CBD, the busiest taxi ranks in town. The team found two women who were not afraid to speak to them.
Noma (the soil seller) mentioned that she also ate the soil and she bought it from a merchandiser whose name she did not want to mention. According to the vendors, the supplier sold the soil at R80.00 a box that can be estimated to be a size of a box that comes with bananas.
“I sell one packet for R2.00” said Noma, “The soil is the best selling of all the goods on my stock and it is bought by women from the ages of 13 to 60 years old“ she added. She knew about the dangers of eating the soil as she herself is infertile because of it, but she still sold it because she was unemployed and wanted to provide for her children and her family back in Maputo.
Australia, the second vendor who was a bit older than Noma said that she was aware that the soil might cause constipation but not aware of the severe dangers of eating the soil.
Both Australia and Noma found people selling the soil and they also decided to join the others as they saw how many people bought it.
“There are two types of this soil, one is brown and the other is cream white” said Australia, “they taste different and we sometimes use the sun as the toaster of the soil to give it the crunchy taste in your mouth” she further explained. She also mentioned that more adults then youth bought the soil.
The women saw no need to quit selling the soil because of the profit and also mentioned that some women tell them that it is good for temporarily healing ulcers so why would they quit if some people are getting helped.
What the clinic sister said.
The last team went to the Nokuthela Ngwenya Community Health Care Center in Kwa Thema. Sabatini spoke to Sister Nhleko. Sister Nhleko was very keen to talk about the problem even though she was busy. According to Sister Nhleko the largest group to eat the soil where pregnant women. The visible symtom was low haemoglobin (combination of plasma and red blood cell volumes) in their blood. She also explained that the common sickness of low HB is low blood pressure. She said women who were seriously affected where referred to Pholosong Hospital.
The team went to Pholosong the following day. Nurses confirmed that the hospital did admit people who were eating the soil. Since low blood pressure is the most common sickness, the Sisters explained that the disease is related to anaemia and it lead to excessive loss of blood during labour. Some patients do not make it through. ” The hospital tries by all means to resuscitate by transfusing the patients. The ratio of mortality is 1 person dies in 7 people” said Sister Smangele (ward 9 Sister in charge).
Sister Marubane from the Ante Natal Clinic at Pholosong Hospital explained that pregnant women took oral treatment on a monthly basis and the pills given to balance Haemoglobin are ferrous sulphate. If the patient’s HB is not responding, a Comsofer shot is given 2 times a week to balance the low blood pressure. If the patient is not responding in the 3rd trimester she is to be transfused and the worst case scenario is when her blood type is not available at the moment, the patient could die.
“Because the soil has chemicals that can pass through the placenta, the development of the child gets disturbed as the mother is ingesting something she should not” explained Sister Mdhladhla (Advance Midwife).
There was a recent case of a deformed baby. A boy was born with his legs combined, he was like a mermaid, and the baby was referred to Charlotte Magxeke Hospital. She also explained that some children are born with half hands and leg, some with no cartilage and some are born with their brains exposed from the skull. Deformed children are
also transferred to Charlotte Magxeke (Johanesburg General) and Chris Hani (Baragwanath)
Sister Marubane said that there is no awareness campaign about the dangers of eating the soil. She did not know about the chemicals that were contained in the soil, she also didn’t know that the soil was from the tailings dam. She said that the only thing they do to raise awareness about this is by telling pregnant women to stop eating the soil as it is a result of PICA (cravings during pregnancy and in compulsive appetite).
What the experts say
We spoke to David van Wyk , the Bench Marks senior reseacher in mining and he explained what he thought the dangers were. “Eating the soil is bad for the human body because the tailings dam contain hazardous chemicals like arsenic, cyanide, silver, copper, strontium, uranium, cadmium amongst others. Strontium, cadmium and uranium are all radio-active and they can give a person bone cancer, stomach cancer, lung cancer etc. Radio-active materials can also mess up DNA codes causing pregnant women to have deformed children. Arsenic is poisonous and gives you eczema and skin lesions. Both cyanide and arsenic can kill you. There is also lead which destroys your brain and mercury which will also eat your brain.”
This is a serious matter and the authorities are doing nothing about it. Mines did not fence the area and have no security at the dumps.This shows negligence and no care for people.
The root cause of this crisis is the terrible unemployment and poverty people live in. People wll sell anyting for money. Because most people from the community cannot afford to consult the doctors for sicknesses, they tend to take advice that is given from around the corner because it is cheaper for them and they will not have to stand in long queues at clinics and public hospitals.
EEO’s next move
EEO’s next move is to launch an awareness campaign to persuade people not to eat the soil It will also speak to local government to stop the sale of soil on the streets.
Mining companies do not care about people’s health; they are in it for money.The companies who abanoned the mines must be forced to shut down the mines properly. The Chamber of mines should stop saying that they do not know the owners of abandoned mines because lives are in danger and they have to take responsibility of the damage caused in the communities. We are concerned that the death of poor people is seen as normal.
By the EEO research Team
Sabatini Motloung, Meshack Mbangula, Qedusizi Masina, Tebogo Motene, Vuyelwa Cindi, Sandile Nombeni, Gugu Nkabinde, Mandla Jwili, Ayanda Baloyi, MApule KAmodi, Steven Nkabinde, Zethu Diko, Mpho Mthembu, Thabo Mogafe and Molly Mbangula
For the families working at the Makgaleng dumping site, “ A better life for all” is a distant dream. Poverty stricken families spend their time at the dumping site just to get a meal for each day. It is sad to find such poverty next to two of the best performing mines, Sibanye Gold and Harmony South Deep (Joel Mine).
Makgaleng is a landfill site situated right next to the water reservoir of Theunusen. It is meters away from the Masilo community, divided by a national road. Makgeleng, ’a place of aloe leaves’ in Sesotho, serves as a landfill site both to the community and businesses of Theunusen. It also serves as a place for refuge to more than 18 families of waste pickers occupying the site.
A place where babies are born
This dumping site has become the birth name of a 2 year old boy whose parents Tahleho and Nomtatso Lekau, have been waste picking for more than 5 years. Mr Lekau decribed his son Paballo ‘Makgaleng’ Lekau’s arrival at at the landfill site.
“It was late in the afternoon when a colleague of mine fetched me from the other side of the site with the news that my pregnant wife was about to give birth. We rushed to call an ambulance. But the ambulance did not arrive. On our return we found that she had given birth to a boy by herself, without any medical assistance.” He continued, “We named him Makgaleng after his place of birth, the dumping site.”
An ID Problem
The Lekau family picks plastic and sells it to the regular recycling company from Welkom. “The plastic we pick gives us about R18 a day to R400 per month.” said Mr Lekau. They only have waste picking as a source of income. The entire family do not have any legal documentation that identify them as citizens of this country. “My mother has refused to assist me in finding an identity book after I have lost my birth certificate whilst a teenager. My sister’s boyfriend burnt her suitcase that had my certificate in it during their fight.”, continued Mr Lekau. With this lack of documentation, Mr and Mrs Lekau were not able to find employment and their children cannot receive a support grant from government, hence they are subjected to waste picking. The majority of waste pickers at the site have a similar issue of documentation.
A Housing Problem
On a daily basis, Lekau’s family walks approximately a kilometre from their Lusaka home to Makgaleng to pick waste during the day and return in the evening. “At night, my family occupies a backroom shack of an old woman. I cannot afford to pay any rent so this lady asked me to serve as a guard during the night while she gives my children a place to sleep at night.”, said Mr Lekau with a sad face. All this happened after the municipality threatened to remove all waste picking families who built shacks by the landfill site with a claim that the municipality is going to grant the site to a recycling company. The families had to relocate to Masilo where they are forced to pay rent. They come in the morning to pick and leave in the evening.
Our pickings are stolen
The Muncipality started to build a fence around the site but they left this unfinished without a fence. This allows people to come and steal at night what is being collected by waste pickers during the day. “We work hard during the day and leave our pickings well packed in the afternoon, only to find them missing in the morning. They removed us from the site , now we can’t look after our pickings” continued Sporo.
Pollution and Found Food
They are not exposed to only these threats. They also suffer from health hazards caused by air pollution of burning stuff at the site and eating food from the trash. “We sometimes do not have food so we feed ourselves from the food we find left in the plastics.” said Mr Lekau placing a piece of meat from a black plastic on a fire. The look from his son’s eyes is filled with joy as he shared the piece amongst them for lunch. “My children have adopted this lifestyle, they don’t get sick. They have been feeding on this since their infancy”, he concluded.
While Mr Lekau denied exposure to health risks, the continuing cough from almost everyone at the site tells a different story. This story that is confirmed by Sporo. “There is always a smog here from the burning stuff and it blocks our breathing at times. Nurses do come to check on us. They say that many of us have TB, but we cannot afford to go and stand on queues at clinic while we are hungry.”
Fear of Falling into Holes
The last threat they are exposed to is a fear of falling into holes in the ground. “As you are busy picking at times, you can feel the vibration of mining machines from underneath. It scares a hell out of children including us adults.” said Mr Lekau. The landfill site is situated between two performing mines, Sibanye Gold Mines and Harmony Deep.
Our action as an organisation thus far is that we went to Home Affairs offices in Welkom to ask for a mobile office to visit the site so that the department assists the waste pickers there with finding proper documentation of citizenship. The department refused a special request stating that concerned individuals must be at the community hall where all residents of Masilo receive help at the the scheduled time. We have been consulting waste pickers to prepare necessary documents for the next visit. We want to see all of them properly documented and children receiving a government grant.
Secondly, we sent requests for donations to social movements and individuals to help with basic needs such as clothes and food for the children.
Lastly, we are of view that the rights of our people must be respected and their lives deserve transformation. We wrote a letter to the municipality stating our concern that it must assist with the crisis at the site and when the recycling company is set up, current waste pickers must be secured employment within that company.
BY Tshepo Stephen Maredi
We visited the landfill site north of Bronville Township. We wanted to know if there has been a progress at all. We have been monitoring this site for 3 years now
As we approached the site we were welcomed by the smog, the ash, the passing trucks entering the gate into the dump and waste pickers in the midst of this. On the site the smog worsens as there is continuous burning of waste, the unpleasant smell and diverse movement of people running to the trucks, waste pickers heading to the scales, lining up at the tap and pulling their waste bags to the location. Lastly we see the informal settlement at the site is built from cans, steel, and plastic.
The informal settlement has a few pit toilets. The people use a tap which is at the entrance of the site. There is a sheebeen that sells beer and plays very loud music all day. This settlement is situated right next to the dump. “There are people staying in these shacks though they are not waste pickers. These are people from neighbouring countries who are illegal miners.
One of the waste pickers Ntate Kop said “ There are the people here who steal electric cables and some among them are those who ran away from the community for the crimes they committed.” He continued, “We see awful things here from the birth of babies and their dumping. We are harassed by a gang called Raf3 that takes our belongings after picking, they control sections of the site, they are attacked by other gangs from the community and they threaten to kill us for standing against their authority.”
Mrs Louw a resident described the problem of air pollution they are forced to live with. “In the evenings the smog heads to our houses and our walls are black darkened by the smog” What causes this smog? Some blame it on the waste pickers. But Mr Kop a waste picker gave a different explanation “We don’t burn anything, how can we burn things that we pick for a living? People who burn here are the illegal miners who process gold and cable here at the site during the night hence the smog is during the night. This is when we are not picking and after they have returned from the near shafts. This is a dump site so fire catches any flammable product and it results to a huge fire at night. There are trucks dumping ashe from mines which leads to explosives and fire “said Mr Kop.
We confronted a councillor with this information . “The problem is that there is no maintenance from the service provider. We as the Matjhabeng Municipality are not doing proper oversight.” confirmed the councillor, Mr Victor Morris.
The introduction of access cards for waste pickers to enter or exit the gate of the site is not regulative as it fails to acknowledge the rightful owners. One card is circulated around. This card is only used at the entrance of scaling and recycling machines.
This site is hazardous as it poses a danger both to the community of Bronville and to the social and physical health of the waste pickers.
We want to find out if the landfill site is legal, does it have a license to manage rubbish?
We sent a letter requesting this information to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). A second letter was directed to the Endangered Species Protection Unit of the SAPS that is responsible for finding “illegal dumpers” and taking them to court.
There must be police intervention to deal with all forms of illegal dumping at the site. If this site is legal and has a license, we seek to know if the service provider has a permit. Also if there is a permit we seek to know if it correlates with the conditions at the site and its classification since there are explosives there.
One of our demands is the increased visibility of the Monitoring Committee and we demand copies of recent inspections of the site. We hope all departments will respond to our letters in a short period of time.
By Sampie Beukers , Charlote Dlamini
and Nomzamo Dyonase
The stinking dam of Nyakallong in Allanridle, is polluted by toxic liquid waste from the Shaft 1 gold mine. This is made worse by the flows from the municipal’s sewage system.The community of Allanridge, especially, the River Side and Di’Nineng section, is forced to inhale fumes from this dam. From our continuous monitoring investigations since 2013, we have realised that the dam worsens every year since our first visit. The large scale media coverage and the residents’ complaints seem not to have shaken the mine and the municipality.The residents complain to the municipality about the mine but are not fully aware that the municipality is in part to blame.
How is the municipality involved?
The municipality has two pump stations from the town and the township which both excrete seweage at the sewage plant.“There is no electricity to boost the plant so the machine stands still regularly and gets discharged to the near slim dam” said one of workers at the plant who did not want to reveal his name.
Mme Seipati Mthombeni a local residnet gave a clearler idea of the cause of the problem. “We have inspected and found that the water cleaning process has stopped for a year now. Moreover, we came across 8 manholes that have blasted and have not been attended for years. We no longer complain about the manholes because the municipality does not respond to our requests from this side.
Effect on the health of the community
A resident Samuel Mabaso confirmed this “Since this seweage has been running on my back yard, my family and I have not stopped coughing. At the clinic they said I have contacted TB in the previous years but I continued coughing after the treatment”.
We went to the clinic to request the statistics of TB patients of the selected section but Bophelong clinic refused to give us the statistics. However, our conviction that this slime dam causes TB is supported by the nurses coming to this section to provide medication to TB patients. The number of TB patients are higher and and the visits are more frequent than the other sides of the township.
How toxic is the dam?
“In the period of our research, we have seen the soil surrounding the dam change colour with an addition of black, brown and orange besides the normal colour” said Mme Seipati Mthombeni of Kopano Environmental Club. In addition, the colour of the water is not only blue but reddish and greenish too.This is the combination of waste excreted both by the mine and the municipality’s blasted manhole.
Madipheko Khoza. told us
“During rainy seasons the smell of the dam gets back when it is hit by the sun. During dry and windy seasons the dust coming from the dam is whitish and salty. We are forced to inhale this since it gets trapped in our homes”.
Bear in mind that that there are two different wastes that are discharged into the dam: The one comes straight from the gold cleansing plant and contains harmful chemicals including anide, sulfuric acid, and solvents for separating minerals from ore, nitric acid, ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (“ANFO”) used in blasting tunnels, heavy metals such as mercury and uranium, soline, diesel fuel and acetylene.
The sewage waste contains ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulphide. These chemicals are toxic when inhaled.
People in the community suffer from eye irritation, nausea and breathing difficulties. We learnt in our internet search that prolonged, low-level exposure to these chemicals may cause fatigue, pneumonia, and loss of appetite, headaches, irritability, poor memory and dizziness.
It is clear how toxic the dam is and there has been no action to solve this problem. Instead the municipality worsens teh problem by pumping sewage.
We believe that both the municipality and mine should be held accountable for the illness they cause in the society.
By Zanele Stuntman, Zweli Ngxilana , Tokelo Khoboko