Johannesburg - If you were in Joburg last Sunday, the question is, did the earth move for you? There was a tremor measuring 4.8 on the Richter scale just after 2.30am on Sunday morning. If you did live through it, it would have been extremely unsettling.
A tremor measuring 5.2 collapsed a six-storey block of flats in Welkom in 1976. That’s the best-known “quake disaster’ we’ve had in this country, but there have been plenty more in the once-fabled goldfields of the Northern Free State.
We don’t hear about it because there’s not too much mining going on there anymore, and there isn’t too much news coverage of those areas unless a tailings dam breaches its walls and floods the town, as happened in Merriespruit in 1994 or Jacobsdal last year.
What’s perhaps scarier is that Johannesburg doesn’t have more tremors than just this one. The once fabulously wealthy Witwatersrand gold reef ran from Springs in a bow shape all the way west down to Klerksdorp and Orkney. The city of Joburg’s CBD is actually bisected by the old Reef. Standard Bank in Simmonds Street is literally sitting above an old gold mine – which is both globally unique and an incredible marketing ploy.
The Joburg mines haven’t been in operation for decades now. The tremors will continue, though, because the earth below us is a honeycomb of disused workings; haulage tunnels and stopes – and then there’s the rising water. Many of the mines are not just abandoned; there is no ongoing management of their toxic environmental legacy, like acid mine water, either.
These aren’t new stories at all; the saga of Khulubuse Zuma and Zondwa Mandela and Aurora Empowerment Systems and the old Grootvlei Gold Mine in Springs more than 10 years ago is the greatest cautionary tale of them all.
Gallows humour remains South Africa’s balm. The hoary old meme of the plastic patio chairs and tables in a garden, Earthquake in Johannesburg, we will rebuild! titled with one lying on its side, was quickly resurrected on social media. Underneath ran the new addition; Tender to repair damage to Minister’s house: R10-million!
We need a sense of humour these days, but it’s wearing thin. Elsewhere in Johannesburg, you can see big 4x4 bakkies with stickers on the back reading “I HEART POTHOLES”. Of course, they do. The size of the vehicles (and their drivers) often suggests they would not be out of place on the eastern front as Ukraine launches its counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion.
But we can survive potholes. We can still dodge them at this stage. You can’t do much when the roof of your house crashes in on your head the next time there’s a really big tremor. We need mining in this country; for the jobs, the foreign exchange and the industrialisation, but our Department of Minerals and Energy is loathe to both licence new ventures or manage the legacy.
Perhaps we do need a Minister of Earthquakes to join the Minister of Electricity. If nothing else, it really will complete the busted flush that is our Cabinet.