Mining bosses must be held accountable for dam disaster

One person died, others were reported missing and the residents of the town of Jagersfontein in the Free State have been left homeless by a flash flood caused by the collapse of an abandoned tailings mine dam wall last Sunday. Picture: Twitter/@GovernmentZA

One person died, others were reported missing and the residents of the town of Jagersfontein in the Free State have been left homeless by a flash flood caused by the collapse of an abandoned tailings mine dam wall last Sunday. Picture: Twitter/@GovernmentZA

Published Sep 18, 2022


The collapse of a diamond tailings dam in Jagersfontein, Free State, on September 11 was a rude reminder of the dark underbelly of mining as a wealth producing and job creating activity.

South Africa became an economic powerhouse in Africa because of the discovery of gold and diamonds in the late 19th century. Fantastic fortunes for some and terrible hardships for others was the mixed result. Understanding and resolving this contradiction is the elusive magic elixir that will bring the better life for all that Nelson Mandela promised us.

Tailings are the waste that remains after the valuable gems have been extracted from the rock or sand in which they are embedded. Johannesburg’s mine dumps and Jagersfontein’s tailings dam nonetheless contain some value as new technology allows for the further extraction of minerals from the waste they contain.

The problem is that, without proper care, these dumps are not only environmental hazards but can be fatal to human beings. One person died, four are unaccounted for, more than 200 families lost their homes, hundreds of domestic and wild animals perished, and innumerable plants were destroyed.

The ecosystem may be irreparably destroyed. Unlike gold, whose extraction involves cyanide, diamond tailings are probably less toxic, but the waste is probably relatively dangerous to all organic life. Addressing Jagersfontein residents, President Cyril Ramaphosa commented that the focus was on providing immediate relief to the bereaved, sick and destitute. For once, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, was seen on the ground attending an emergency concerning his portfolio rather than outsourcing this to Minister Bheki Cele and his police.

The Minister of Human Settlements, Mmamoloko Kubayi, and the deputy minister of water and sanitation also visited the area. This suggests that the government of Ramaphosa correctly sees the seriousness of the environmental and human disaster, but also the sociopolitical issues it raises about the type of society the ANC government has helped create.

Over the years, the Jagersfontein community has been living in fear of the tailings dam, including conveying its concerns to the government and the mine. As has become the practice in South Africa, their complaints were simply ignored. Mantashe says the Department of Minerals and Energy (DMRE) has known about this issue but was hamstrung when it lost a court case back in 2007.

De Beers, the previous owner of the mines, argued that the DMRE and the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 had no jurisdiction over the tailings dam. The question that needs to be answered is why and how the disaster could happen and whether and to what extent similar disasters can be averted.

Similar tailings dam disasters happened in Merriespruit, Virginia, in 1994, leaving 17 dead, and in Bafokeng in 1974, with 12 fatalities. The world took notice when in January 2019, 270 people died in a mudslide in Brumadinho, Brazil.

The problem is that the original mine owners, such as De Beers, tend to move on once they have mined all the minerals in a mine, selling to smaller owners who hope to make money from re-treatment of the tailings. The new owners may cut corners and, as Mantashe admits, are not always properly regulated.

The lions, having eaten their fill, leave the carcass to the jackals. Will De Beers be held accountable for the disaster in Jagersfontein or it will be allowed to walk away scot-free? The environmental and human costs of mining, notwithstanding its economic benefits, must be reassessed. The exploitation of cheap black labour, the breakdown of black families because of the migrant labour system, the statutory racism, and so on, are some of the building blocks of the “mineral energy complex”.

The latter is the economic and political arrangement whereby the South African economy thrived during the 20th century through the provision of cheap electricity to the mines and factories. Human beings, especially black people, paid a heavy price. So did the environment. The Jagersfontein disaster is a wake-up call.

The protection of private property and the prioritisation of profits over the environment and human life must end. The cruelty and callousness of racial capitalism cannot be allowed to taint South Africa’s young democracy.

Despairing of the wanton destruction of capitalism, some have suggested that minerals are a “resource curse” to the colonised. The time has come to draw the line. Mining must be controlled and brought into the service of the people.

We will accept no more excuses, Mr Mantashe. Now is the time to put social justice and climate justice to the fore. And profits to the rear.

* Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg