Mining: The Sunset Industry

By Ferrial Adam –

While for some South Africans, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA (state of the nation address) signalled new hope for the country, for many it was much of the same with the ANC talking left but walking right. An example of this was Ramaphosa’s declaration of mining as a sunrise industry that is going to combat inequality, poverty and unemployment. It is going to usher in “a new path of transformation and sustainability”. [1] In reality, the mining industry has failed to do this in more than 100-years of existence in South Africa. Why would it change now?

It just so happened that the day before the SONA I accompanied an NGO, Bench Marks Foundation to Snake Park in Soweto. What I learnt and witnessed affected me deeply and listening to the President speak about mining as the answer to our economic woes made me very angry.

The true legacy of mining is wrought with slave labour, low wages for rank and file workers; dangerous working conditions; work related illness; gender discrimination; land expropriation and air, land and water pollution; to name but a few. It has consistently enriched a few, president Ramaphosa included. The bottom line is that mining has failed to contribute to sustainability.

Mining is closer to being a sunset industry that is widening the gap between the rich and poor, increasing poverty and contributing to high levels of unemployment. Mining operations in South Africa have had a negative impact on the environment and on the people and communities living close to or downwind of these operations.

This article will address the challenges of the mining sector and will highlight the environmental injustices from the mining sector in South Africa. As such it will argue that mining may be a sunrise industry for a privileged few but if we look at the industry in a holistic way then mining is detrimental to the social and environmental cohesion of society and should thus be regarded as a sunset industry that is losing jobs, investor confidence and is harmful to people and the environment.



The ANC adopted the Mineral Energy Complex model from its apartheid oppressors. Many ANC stalwarts, including our new president have significant shares in mines. The model of mining has been built on cheap, migrant labour that allowed many of the mines to flourish, while the workers and communities close by are subjected to poverty and affected by the harsh environmental impacts.[2] This is still the model being used today and begs the question – Sunrise industry for whom?


A sunrise industry has been defined as “An emerging industry that is gaining favour with investors and is expected to be an engine of future economic growth through steadily rising generation of employment and profits, and comparatively lower environmental costs”[3]. While the South African government is committed to the adoption of market-oriented policies that will supposedly yield job creation, investment, growth, reduced poverty and general inequality, the picture of mining has been very different. [4]

In the past few years almost 50000 jobs have been lost in mining.[5] At the same time, CEOs earn anything from 50 to 100 times that of the rank and file workers. For example, the CEO of Anglo-American earns almost R67 Million, the CEO of BHP Billiton earns R57 Million and the CEO of Goldfields earns R28 Million per annum. [6] In comparison, the mine workers in Marikana were asking for a mere R12500 a month in 2012.

Furthermore, the type of jobs that mining offers poses a threat to workers’ health and safety. When miners get ill, they are either retrenched or not adequately cared for placing a burden on the state and adding to the economic burden of poor families.

If we take the environmental and social impacts into account, then mining is anything but a sunrise industry.


A true reflection of mining

While it is often mentioned that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing us today, the externalities – such as the environmental and social impacts – of mining are either ignored or not included in the ‘profits’ or ‘growth’ of this sector.

Mining operations often result in large scale land grabs, pushing communities off their land and thereby affecting food sovereignty. In Sub-Saharan Africa 60-80% of food that is consumed within rural households is grown by women.[7] Women are the ones who are responsible for producing food, and thus access to and preservation of land is crucial for community and family health/well-being, not to mention basic survival.[8]

Women are disempowered by the way land is taken away and have to spend more time looking for natural resources, including ‘wild fruits, trees, natural herbs, firewood and water’.[9] This results in women resorting to sex work to feed their families.

The mining environment

Air pollution

Mining operations are renowned for high levels of water, soil, air and land pollution. People and the communities who live close to mines are affected by high levels of noise, dust, air pollution, and blasting that comes from the mine operations. Dust from trucks that drive through the communities as well as dust blown from mine waste dumps are ingested either because it settles on locally grown food and livestock or through breathing in the dust,[10] causing respiratory illnesses like asthma.



South Africa is responsible for about 86% of all the waste in Africa as a whole (Institute of Waste Management Southern Africa, 2017).[11] According to Bench Marks Foundation, there are more than 270 tailings dams in the Witwatersrand Basin, that are “mostly unlined and many are not vegetated, providing a source of extensive dust, as well as soil and water (surface and groundwater) pollution.” (Oelofse et al., 2007, p. 617). The dust and water from the tailings waste contain chemicals, minerals and heavy metals that are poisonous, such as arsenic, cyanide, mercury, lead and uranium.[12]


Water pollution

South Africa is a water-scarce country and ranks as one of the 30 driest countries in the world, with an average rainfall of about 40% less than the annual world average rainfall. South Africa has an average annual rainfall of less than 500mm, while that of the world is about 850mm. In South Africa, the state holds the environment, including our water resources, in public trust for the people; this means not only that the water belongs to all the people of South Africa, but that government is supposed to be working on our behalf with regards to our access to as well as use and enjoyment of water.[13] However, Bench Marks Foundation has shown that the issuing of water use licenses within the extractive industry is corrupt and inefficient.

Mining companies in particular have been abusing this process with at least one hundred mines reportedly operating without a water licence in 2014.[14] Communities are regularly prevented from accessing and using the water around the mines.[15] Water pollution and a significant decline in water availability tends to impact women (and girls) more than men, because women and girls are largely responsible for water collection. Because of mining effluent, the water that is available is often contaminated, and it is then women and children who are most affected by skin rashes, urinary infections and other resultant afflictions.  Moreover, having to travel far distances to rivers and streams for potable water increases the hours women spend on unpaid work as well as places them at risk of being attacked or raped.[16]

Water pollution from mine waste rock and tailings might need to be managed for decades, if not centuries, after a mine’s closure. In South Africa in general, and Gauteng in particular, there is a lack of responsible closure and thousands of abandoned mines are the norm. There are 6 000 ownerless, derelict and abandoned mines nationwide and some 600 in Gauteng alone.[17]


Its not just theoretical: the impacts are real

A day before the SONA I accompanied Bench Marks Foundation to Snake Park in Soweto, where they are conducting a health study from the impacts of mining in the area. Like many communities in the south of Johannesburg, this community live on the edge of a gold mine tailings dam, or as we have come to know them as ‘the yellow hills’.

The dust from the tailings has a high concentration of heavy metals and is blown into the community. The dust blows all over including in their homes, clothes, blankets and even the cooking pots. The fine radioactive sand is being used in construction. At one of the homes, I was shown where the cement had been mixed to build RDP homes. The blue-green discoloration was a clear indication that the soil was laden with heavy metals.

Bench Marks Foundation brought along a Geiger counter which was measuring the radiation levels in the area. According to most standards of measurement 0.5 micro-Sieverts (µSv/h) per hour is considered the safe level for medium to long term habitation. Most of the readings on the Geiger counter ranged from 9 to 16 micro Sieverts per hour. The high levels of radiation were measured in and around the homes that we visited.

When it rains, the water on the dump overflows into streams that run into the street. There are no fences or signage to warn people of the hazards. Children play on the mine dumps and swim in the highly toxic evaporation pools. We did a basic pH test and found the lowest was a pH of 3 with the highest a pH of 5.

It was shocking to see the high number of children with cerebral palsy. There is a cerebral palsy child on almost every street. There are so many kids affected that there is a creche that sees to only cerebral palsy children. Cerebral palsy is a developmental disorder that Bench Marks believes – in this area- is partly due to the heavy metals in dust blowing off the hundreds of tailings dumps. Not only are the people exposed to extreme pollution, but they also do not have the support from government or the mining companies. It was disturbing to see a 15 year old affected boy sitting in a car seat made for toddlers.

Government and the mining companies have suggested that there is no link between the children and the mine. Litigation against polluting companies remains extremely difficult without a comprehensive, epidemiological study. Bench Marks believes differently and have thus undertaken a health study in the area. The study is aimed at challenging the mining companies and government to take responsibility and to remove the dangers facing this community.

Street science for environmental justice

Snake Park is just around the corner. We did not have to drive for hours and hours. Even if government does not believe the findings of Bench Marks foundation – there is enough to warrant a study and visit to assess the situation. The mining sector has more than a hundred years of perpetuating environmental injustices across the country. Before Ramaphosa and the ANC give them free reign, we should consider reining this sector in and holding them responsible for damaging the basic fabric of our society.

One of the important tools that Bench Marks is using is education for liberation. Creating awareness and educating members of the communities in which they work to monitor, report, blog and collaborate. This has empowered ordinary people to challenge the mining companies and government. While this has been difficult in the past as mining companies have denied responsibility, street science has forced the balance of power in favour of the communities. Through such networks and groups we can build an environmental and climate justice movement that can give rise to real deep just transitions. So while mining is a sunrise industry for a few mining magnates, the people affected will no longer go silently into the sunset!


[1] State of the nation Address

[2] Andrew England, 2014. ‘South African mining: Stuck in the past’ – e0b9bee0-b0e4-11e3-bbd4-00144feab7de. Accessed, 5 January 2017


[4] Department of Finance, 1996, ‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution: A Macro-Economic Framework’ – Accessed, 17 December 2017



[7] Samantha Hargreaves, 2013. ‘The Impact of Mining on Women’, 17 October – /site/article/1818 Accessed, 2 January 2018

[8] Christina Hill et al,, 2016. ‘Gender and the Extractive Industries: Putting Gender on the Corporate Agenda’, OXFAM Report

[9] ActionAid South Africa, 2016. ‘Precious Metals II: A Systemic Inequality’: 4

[10] Mark Olalde, 2017. ‘The dust mountain that’s just always there’, Accessed, 21 December 2017

[11] Almost three tonnes of ore (waste) is needed to produce enough gold for one typical wedding ring. As at 1997, South Africa produced an estimated 468 million tons of mineral waste per annum (DWAF, 2001).

[12] Bench Marks Foundation, 2017. ‘Policy Gap 12’

[13] Ferrial Adam, 2017. ‘Building People’s Power for Water Sovereignty: An Activist Guide’, Accessed, 18 December 2017

[14] SAPA, 2014, ‘103 mines have no water use licences’,, Accessed, 21 January 2018

[15] Bench Marks Foundation, 2014. ‘Policy Gap 9: South African Coal Mining –  Corporate Grievance Mechanisms, Community Engagement Concerns and Mining Impacts’

[16] Christina Hill et al, 2016. ‘Gender and the Extractive Industries: Putting Gender on the Corporate Agenda’, OXFAM Report

[17] Bench Marks Foundation, 2017. ‘Policy Gap 12’

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