The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) extends its solidarity to the residents of the working class communities of Charlsville and Itumeleng in Jagersfontein. Infrastructure was destroyed and people physically harmed when a tailing dam of the nearest diamond mine burst, causing mudslide and flood.
In a report compiled by community leaders, 2 people died and 4 were missing, whilst about 530 were affected and displaced by the flood and mudslide. The damage to household infrastructure includes 175 affected houses, of which 9 were washed away completely, and 20 damaged. People’s cars were also washed away and damaged by mud.
Due to the displacement of people which has resulted in their relocation to nearby town and Bloemfontein as per the evacuation plan, this disaster will interrupt schooling from continuing normally. This will cause inconvenience to learners, particularly the matriculants who are currently writing the trial examination for the National Senior Certificate (NSC).
Human induced disaster
Even today’s natural disasters are caused by global warming which is stimulated by human activities relating to the combustion of fossil fuels. But the disaster in Jagersfontein is not a natural disaster that was indirectly induced by human activities, it is a disaster that was caused directly by mining activities of the mining corporations and the negligence of those operating the mine.
Jagersfontein Diamond Mine, to which the tailing dam belongs, was formally owned by De Beers Consolidated. In a statement released in reaction to media utterances holding them liable for the disaster, De Beers indicated that it ceased operations on the mine in 1973 and sold off all their assets and associated liabilities in 2010. This means De Beers was responsible for the liabilities between 1973 and 2010, but we doubt if they would have taken responsible for all the health problems caused by the mine dumps and tailings.
The mine is currently operated by Jagersfontein Developments. The majority shareholder in Jagersfontein Developments is Stargems, a multinational company from Dubai.
Community reports indicate that from 2010 when the operations at the mine were resumed, the tailing dam was operated and utilised incompetently. The dam walls are said to have been abnormally high and the gradient of the wall was too steep. Benchmarks Foundation Lead Researcher, David van Wyk, says the danger of the tailing dams located on slopes is that they can always slip causing flooding and mudslides.
Despite the reforms in legislation that requires mining companies to comply with environmental standards and that they present environmental management plans before any form of operation, these companies operate as though these legislative changes have not occurred. The disaster in Jagersfontein is a clear illustration of how these companies priotitises their profits at the expense of the environment and the people living in that environment.
Benchmarks Foundation reported similar incidences in its Policy Gap 1 report. They noted the failing of a tailings dam belonging to Impala Platinum (Implats) that burst in 1974 in Bafokeng area. In 1994, a tailing dam also broke in Merriespruit in Virginia. The effects of both disasters were damage to residential houses, infrastructure, and injuring and killing residents.
In mining and former mining towns, tailing dams continue to pose an environmental threat to the ecosystem and the health of people in those communities. Besides the occasional bursts of dams that causes flooding and mudslides, the dust from the mining dumps and tailings contains various chemicals including radioactive materials that cause different respiratory problems, stillborn birth defects and cancer.
Having come into contact with water and mud that is contaminated with chemicals, the long-term impact of the disaster would be respiratory problems, stillborn birth defects and cancer.