Blood, gold and water
Blood, gold and water

‘People just don’t know this water is bad for you’

By Mara Kardas-Nelson

To say that Mariette Liefferink is eccentric is a gross understatement.

Before visiting her small Tuscan villa in Randburg, Johannesburg for an 8am Saturday interview, my colleague, photojournalist Sam Reinders, and I had heard of her impeccably matching outfits and over-stuffed house displaying an array of furs, French portrait books, and brandy glasses, made more unreal only by her syrupy-sweet Stepford Wives demeanour (she serves frozen Woolworth’s meals with a sprig of fresh onion from the garden).

But nothing could have prepared us for our first encounter with the legend that Mariette has become. Despite the early hour, she approached the gate in a red version of the aforementioned kimono, with matching red shoes, nails, and hair ribbon. Her posture was impeccable, her lipstick freshly applied. During our interview, Mariette interrupted me to ask if I had perhaps seen her small sausage dog, to which I replied that he may have gone outside (the yard is gated, so I assumed this is cause for little concern, but she insists that he is “not street wise”).

Could this really be the woman who is in large part responsible for instigating the long-overdue response to acid mine drainage (AMD), the face of the crisis, the media darling gracing hundreds of newspaper articles and TV programmes across the nation and the world? Why did she do this? What good did it do her? Could her intense, border-line obsessive involvement really stem purely from her passion for the issue, as she states, or does her drive rather come from the need to fulfil her ego and her pocketbook, as some of her critics contend (mines giver her thousands each month to fund her educational work)?

Regardless of what drives her, an even more important question begs to be asked: should Mariette even be considered the face of AMD? Is she truly the person who best represents the human impact of a degraded environment, made possible by a legacy of lax government regulations and careless, get-rich-quick corporate manoeuvrings?

There is little doubt that Mariette and her growing group of companions have been successful in causing alarm. From a journalist’s perspective, she acted as an incredibly valuable contact, offering a wealth of pertinent information that would have otherwise been buried in government files or on academics’ bookshelves.

But one crucial thing prevents her from being the true face of AMD. Mariette is white. While she constantly refers to “engaging the black community” and hires staff from affected townships, Mariette will always be not only white, but also well-off (from the sounds of it, she was blazing rich before her divorce). Despite her concern, she will likely never have to drink polluted water or have her lungs filled with mine dust because of government neglect or lack of alternatives. Her day-to-day life is only filled with sulphur, acid and heavy metals because she’s made it that way.

Mariette is not an anomaly. Throughout my three-month search for data, activists, scientists, labour unions, NGOs, and anyone else interested in AMD, I kept noticing how white everyone was.

And yet it cannot be denied that AMD is largely a black issue. The majority of South Africans living on or near a mine dump or polluted waterway are not situated in lovely Tuscan villas but jiving in the streets of Soweto or, as my colleague and I discovered one day, tucked away on top of a garbage dump nestled within a mine tailing, trying to eke out a living where their illegal immigrant status will not be discovered.

So, why the silence?

One answer may lie in the fact that affected farmers were the first to raise the alarm bells on AMD, with concerns dating back to the 1950s. I’m not talking about small scale or subsistence farmers here (who are also hugely impacted, if not more so) I’m talking about big, wealthy, three-thousand-head-of-cattle farmers, who are economically and politically powerful — and historically, primarily white. These are people with money, time, education, lawyers, and a lot of land to lose. While anyone who sees their water being degraded would be perturbed, this group had the connections and the cash to do something about it, catapulting the issue of AMD to the forefront of political, media and legal consciousness.

Israel Mosala, a volunteer with Earthlife Africa who hails from Soweto, offered another explanation.

Just as Mariette is obsessed with getting AMD into the news media, Israel is obsessed with educating his fellow Sowetans about the threat that the thousands of tons of mine waste surrounding the city and flowing through the beloved Klip River pose to their health. He spends his days going door-to-door, making trips to schools, and talking to anyone who will listen.

Yet Israel is fighting an uphill battle. When he mentions “mine dust” or “acid water” to his fellow residents, some look at him blankly, some complain about the dust, some talk about the poor quality of the Klip, and most lament the poor service delivery granted them by government. All seem more concerned about unemployment, poor health or lack of proper food and housing than the ever-present mine dumps which have simply become part of Sowetans’ day-to-day lives.

Israel considers lack of education to be central to the complacency. He only found out about AMD through listening to the likes of Mariette on the radio and by joining Earthlife, and suggests that government and mines have a responsibility to sponsor more TV, billboard and radio ads on the topic. “People just don’t know this water is bad for you,” he says. “You need to know that if you partake in certain activities it will impact the environment and your health … maybe government can come to their senses and do something, because people need to be educated.”

Worries also don’t translate into activism because of the very nature of health effects stemming from acid mine drainage. With immediate concerns like lack of employment, education, healthcare and housing opportunities taking up so much time and energy, the threat of cancer or botched hormones which may occur years or even generations down the road seem like a weird sci-fi conspiracy theory rather than a real problem to be taken seriously and fought against.

Israel is frustrated that acid mine drainage isn’t talked about more often. While he understands the burdens that his friends and neighbours face: “When they complain about housing and get a new RDP house near a dump I say … ‘okay you have a house, but you have no health. How are you going to enjoy your house, your life, with no health? You’re not alive, just a moving corpse’ … there are kids that are always coughing, and the suspicion is the mine dumps next to them.” Israel says that lack of concern stems from disempowerment and limited alternatives. “When you’re frustrated, you just take anything because of your situation. You need significant time to sit down and explain to a person what’s happening in order for them to really think about it.”

Former department of water affairs employee Carin Bosman says that disinterest comes from a lack of government regard for protecting communities. “If you live in an area where it’s dirty around you, you couldn’t care less about your neighbour’s problem, you couldn’t care less about your neighbour’s life, about your problem and your life. If somebody else cares so little about your life that they put your house there, what are you going to care? What are you going to do?

This isn’t to say that activism isn’t happening. Throughout our research, we met grannies fighting polluting mines and inept government, and young healthcare workers who were concerned about rising rates of respiratory infections in their communities. Organisations like Earthlife are seeing a growing number of activists hailing from a variety of communities, with many neighbours building coalitions of their own.

An unjust reality

Acid mine drainage is a great environmental disaster. Even more so, it is an indicator of the grave social injustice still permeating South Africans’ lives. It is an injustice that millions of poor people must be made to pay for the profits of the mines, that poor service delivery has made it so that people are given a choice between an empty tap and a polluted river, that the country’s education system is so poor that people are not given the opportunity to learn about their rights, their health and their environment, much less stand up for them. It is an injustice that this is a black issue at all, that South Africa is still divided along racial lines, with a small minority who historically benefited from mine wealth being protected from the ills that the much larger majority, upon whose backs that wealth was made, must daily face.

And so while I commend the work of Mariette and her collaborators — they are tireless in their fight — I’m also ready to see her moved to the sidelines while the Israels of this country take over the spotlight.

Mara Kardas-Nelson’s response to the comments received in this blog post:

This piece has obviously created a large amount of controversy, and so I feel it my responsibility as the author to respond.

Firstly, it was never my intention to attack Mariette’s character. As I state in the piece, she was and is an important contact for journalists like myself attempting to cover a complicated and under-reported story, and is and will no doubt continue to be absolutely tireless in her fight against AMD. Mariette is a well-intentioned, hard-working woman who saw an injustice and has done her very best to ensure that something is done about it. I absolutely commend her for this, and on a personal note am grateful to have had her as a contact. For any pain I may have personally caused her, I do apologise.

But this article is not really about Mariette. This article is about race and acid mine drainage in the context of social justice, specifically with regards to who currently is and who I feel should be the voice of AMD. I do not want Mariette as a person to step away from the limelight (indeed, I think this would negatively impact any chance this country has of battling AMD), but rather want her and others to be joined by those who, during my three months of research, I saw as simultaneously most heavily impacted and most silent on the issue. These happened to be primarily poor, black communities, who, because of lack of employment and education, poor service delivery, and limited alternatives, live on or near a mine tailing or polluted waterway. I am not saying that Mariette is bad, or that what she does is wrong, but simply that she is not representative of those I saw as most impacted.

In my piece I state that Mariette is only impacted by sulphur, heavy metals and acid because she makes it that way. I commend that choice — she is fighting a good fight. But I also know that many others do not have such a choice, and rather live with toxins and carcinogens on a daily basis because of their socio-economic status — and, yes, either by default or by history — their race. As is true with all issues, I believe that those most affected should take a bigger role in determining how issues are raised and addressed. A common call runs throughout Latin America: “Nada para nosotros, sin nosotros.” Nothing for us, without us. In writing this, I am simply encouraging this call to be echoed in the context of AMD.

This is not to say that Mariette does not engage the black community when possible, or that I can speak for those most affected either. But as a journalist, it is my job to go where others cannot, and bring the story as I see it. It should also be noted that this is an opinion piece, and a blog at that, not published in the print or on-line version in the paper, and not meant to adequately and comprehensively reflect fact.

And so, in my personal opinion, this is what I saw: I saw that Mariette, while incredibly hard working and diligent, is also white and relatively wealthy, and that she has garnered more media attention than the much larger number of those who are primarily black and poor, living, working, and playing on the mine dumps and near polluted water. I saw that most of my contacts were white, and that I live in a country that is primarily black. I saw the media — myself included, at times — speaking more to outspoken white contacts than to quieter, harder to find black contacts.

To not address race when it appeared so glaringly before me seemed irresponsible.

This is not about Mariette. This is about the system that she, and I, and you, and everyone within this country operates within. I am calling for that system to be changed. I have raised some questions, which are apparently provocative, but those that I believe need to be addressed.