Ecologies of Gold

The Past and Future Mining Landscapes of Johannesburg

The Witwatersrand gold rush of 1886 marked the start not only of a century of gold mining in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni but also of massive transformations in the landscapes of these South African cities. Once natural grasslands, the Witwatersrand — Afrikaans for “the ridge of white waters” — rapidly became a region of bustling boomtowns. The Witwatersrand Basin was responsible for over 40 percent of total global gold production and continues to be a major producer of gold. Over the past century a range of factors — fluctuating international gold prices, changing demands for mining labor, the construction of infrastructure and the need to dispose of mining waste — has shaped the development of what is now the most urbanized province in South Africa. In particular, the 80-kilometer mining belt between the two cities is riddled by deep-shaft mines, where companies built an extensive network of underground tunnels and moved large amounts of earth to the surface. These operations have weakened geological strata, disrupted natural drainage patterns and altered ecological habitat. The original semi-arid grasslands ecology is now converted to an urban forest, and sediment from mining waste has blocked natural waterways, unexpectedly creating wetlands with rich bird habitat. Massive mine dumps, many upwards of 30 meters tall, have become landmarks of Johannesburg — or eGoli, “the place of gold,” in Zulu.

In the 1970s the gold mines moved from Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni to the rural areas of the Witwatersrand, and informal settlements began to occupy the vacant mining lands in the heart of the city. The end of apartheid, in 1994, brought a large influx of rural residents — mostly blacks or foreign Africans — seeking opportunities in Johannesburg and joining family and friends in existing informal settlements along the mining belt. Currently 25 percent of the population in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni live in informal settlements, and approximately a quarter of them — 400,000 people — are in the mining belt. The settlements range from 100 to 40,000 people, with the largest communities in Ekurhuleni, where the mining companies have expended fewer resources to police the land.

Not surprisingly, the settlements face myriad obstacles. Local zoning laws prevent them from receiving municipal services such as water, electricity and sanitation. Having no secure right to the land, the settlers construct homes from scrap metal and found wood; and despite such resourcefulness, they’ve encountered degraded environmental conditions that seriously hampered efforts to improve living standards and achieve formal municipal status.

Changing ownership structures and bankruptcies in the mining industries have made it difficult to determine who is responsible for the environmental remediation of the old mining land (despite strict environmental regulations). Shallowly undermined land — caused by underground mines close to the ground surface — makes it technically difficult to construct permanent buildings and basic infrastructure, while the fine dust from neighboring mine dumps poses health risks such as respiratory disease and cancer. To complicate the situation, new extraction technologies and rising gold prices are enabling the recovery of gold from mine dumps. Massive topographical and hydrological operations have been set in motion once again; the old mine dumps are disappearing, gold slurry and water are piped throughout the region and waste has been transferred to new “super dumps” on the periphery. Newly freed land is being redeveloped for light industry and recreation; yet the population of greater Johannesburg is projected to double over the next 20 years, creating a significant housing shortage. This has created tension over land; but it’s also led to unexpected partnerships between the mining companies and informal settlements.

In January 2010 we traveled to Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni to study the rapidly changing mining belt. We visited eight informal settlements, numerous mine dumps, the nearly complete FIFA World Cup Stadium, gold processing plants, and even a defunct-mine-turned-theme-park called Gold Reef City. Through our discussions with informal settlers, non-profit organizations, government officials, academics, real estate developers, mining experts and mine operators, we uncovered a complex web of ecologies that will determine the future of the gold mining belt. Our investigation documents the relationships between the current mining operations, the infrastructure that supports them and the informal settlements that inhabit defunct mining sites. In this slideshow, we hope to show that these relationships open up possibilities for the rehabilitation of a post-gold industrial landscape into a socially, economically and environmentally productive urban environment.

View Slideshow

Dorothy Tang & Andrew Watkins, “Ecologies of Gold,” Places Journal, February 2011. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Chip Watkins

    02.25.2011 at 18:37

    This is an important topic about which more should be published.

  • tarig khalid

    02.27.2011 at 15:04

    Good job, every body should know nective impacts of mining operations, particularly the contamination of heavy metals.