Jozi Gold will be screening at the South African Film Festival (12-24 May 2021). Directed by Fredrik Gertten and Sylvia Vollenhoven, it's based on an original idea by Adam Welz. Running for 74 mins, this documentary follows grandmother and environmental activist Mariette Liefferink, on a mission to uncover the truth about mine waste from the mines of Johannesburg, or Jozi as the locals call it. She's pushing to force the gold industry to take responsibility for this environmental nightmare.
Mariette is a white middle-class Afrikaner woman with no formal training in any of the issues she tackles. What she does have is a lot of patience and an inner drive to right wrongs. From a housewife she has become one of the 100 most influential people in the mining world. She believes it is her duty to restore a sense of justice in the world. She is a prime example of how one ordinary person can make an extraordinary difference, taking on huge and powerful corporations. She brings to mind, the power of one.
A boomtown was born in 1886 when the world's largest gold deposits were discovered in a rural part of South Africa -Johannesburg, Africa's richest city. Gold production peaked in 1970 and declined rapidly in the late 1980s when the best ore was mined out. Both the Apartheid regime and the gold output collapsed in the early 1990s. The mines have left six billion tons of solid waste in surface dumps - 600,000 tons are radioactive. Uranium is naturally found in the same rock as gold. Tens of millions of litres of Acid Mine Drainage, a toxic soup that forms when water comes into contact with mined rock, flow out of disused mine tunnels every day. Tons of radio active waste pollute the air and turn water into poison every day.
Almost no research has been done and for decades anyone who dared to look into it was defunded or intimidated. A recent study estimated that over a million people may be living dangerously close to mine waste dumps. Mines and the government fear that clean-up and healthcare costs of mine pollution might equal 60 years' of gold industry profits. Because there is a great and general reluctance to address the problem, the work of Mariette Liefferink has taken centre stage.
Pule Molefe and Mariette Liefferink. Photo: Maanda Nwendamutswu
Mariette is not an intellectual giant or scientist. She likens herself to a marathon runner, not a sprinter. She certainly displays staying power and has more than put the hard yard in to achieve all that she has done. Starting from the ground up she went through her father's two law books and hundreds of reports to educate herself so she would have a professional approach to put pressure on both the government and the mining industry. She takes a grass roots approach by educating the locals with her Toxic Tours, patiently explaining all things at length and not without a sense of humour. However, anger for the injustices is a motivating factor for Mariette, when communities are left to fend for themselves. She is taking on a government who instead of being a regulator, became a parter of the mining industry, thus polluting not just the land but politics as well. In fact, many politicians are share holders in mining companies.
Mariette remains a watch dog, pushing for more transparency. She's not against mining and believes it can be done in a more ethical, moral and sustainable way. This marathon runner however is in no hurry to let up on constant reinforcement. Mining waste has been classified by The European Environmental Bureau as the second greatest threat next to global warming. It is now officially recognised as a national crisis in South Africa. As at 2019 when the documentary was made, there were 380 radioactive mine residue areas around Johannesburg and 400,000 people were still waiting to be relocated. It points to the fact that the true cost of mining lies with the poorest of the poor who suffer health issues and are left to pick up after the fallout.
You cannot come away from this documentary without admiring Mariette Liefferink as she glamorously totters across vast wasteland in high heels and a Chinese cheongsam (dress). Cover your mouth she warns, this dust is full of uranium, in her polite singsong voice. Perhaps it's her politeness, her age and her non-threatening demeanour that disarms and has her dismissed from being taken seriously at first, till she exposes her steely resolve, her relentless fight for justice and her staying power.
Mariette goes about matter of factly with determination, and reaches out across South Africa's sharp social divides to poor black shanty town dwellers and white Afrikaner farmers alike. Governments, NGOs and international scientists now call on her for help and last year she gained a new loyal ally with the same steely determination. Her own daughter Simone, an aquatic ecologist, employed by one of the mining giants. She might work for the mines, but she's on her mother's side in this fight. Her bright red lipstick and alluring couture mirror her mother's unusual activist style. This documentary will expose you to truths that were perhaps not in your radar. It's educational and a joy to watch this gentle but determined woman who is like an iron fist in a velvet glove, not interested in just pointing the finger, but engaging in solutions.