There was no reason to actually have a city here were it not for the mineral wealth; the drinking water had to be pumped in from the Vaal, everything else had to be carted in as Africa’s fabled El Dorado took shape.
The results, though, spoke for themselves. If you ever venture into the CBD, pop in past Standard Bank’s offices in Simmonds Street. The old mine workings are preserved in the basement. It must be the only bank actually built atop a gold mine.
Joburg managed to successfully transition from a mining economy to a services economy, albeit mostly situated in Sandton, when the gold mining caravan followed the reef out to Klerksdorp, Orkney and then the fabulous wealth beneath the mealie lands of the northern Free State.
But here’s the rub; the gold mining companies who did all that are mostly no longer with us - and those that still exist are a shadow of their former selves. We’re left with the legacy and it’s literally toxic.
The Saturday Star’s multiple award-winning environmental reporter and news editor Sheree Bega has written long and hard about the health risks we face from the cyanide dust being blown off the tailings dams, which look so enchanting and gold in the sunset, if you’re lucky enough to be driving past them on the N1 as opposed to living next to them.
She’s written about the dark side of feral capital, documenting the asset stripping at the Aurora Mine in the East Rand, the joblessness and hopelessness - as well as the rising level of acid mine water, which is not only literally eating away at the very foundations of the high-rise buildings that define our CBD skyline but also threatening the water table and rendering farm land unusable.
Then there are the zama zamas, the illegal miners who operate literally under the streets of Joburg - often cheek by jowl with legitimate miners further along the reef into the Free State.
There are sporadic stories; gun fights underground, brothels, rock falls, but somehow no one takes them seriously. Perhaps after last week’s Sunday Times report they will. There are real fears that the illegal miners are blasting so close to the surface, using explosives to wrest the gold ore from the reef that Joburg’s gas and fuel lines are at risk.
If any of those go up, the houses on the surface within a 300m radius will be incinerated. It’s not an idle threat. The zama zama issue has never been properly dealt with for the simple reason that our gold mining industry is in terminal decline and everyone from national government all the way to the JMPD appear to have far bigger headaches to deal with.
Wiping out entire suburbs might change that. We have to sort out our gold mining legacy once and for all, in all its facets.
Just because we can’t see the crisis, doesn’t mean it can’t kill us.
Ritchie is a media consultant. He is a former journalist and newspaper editor.