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A journalist responds

By Mara Kardas-Nelson

The below is in response to the comments received in response to an opinion piece published on Thought Leader on November 11 2010.

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.


  • The Mail & Guardian is featuring a series on acid mine drainage (AMD) in South Africa. This Thought Leader blog takes a behind-the-scenes look at each story, giving you a more in depth look at the relationship between mining and water and taking you into the homes, offices, and boardrooms of some of the country's most imminent and notorious activists, community leaders, scientists, and mining companies. This series was made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa's Media Fellowship Programme. To learn more about AMD, check out