The Witwatersrand is a region containing a mountain ridge of gold-bearing rock which is mostly located in the Gauteng province of South Africa. The gold is located in reef beds which were first discovered in 1886 . The beginning of gold mining in the Whitwatersrand region resulted in it becoming the most densely populated region of South Africa, with settlements initially constructed for the miners, the mining area grew and developed due to supporting industries moving in .
The intense gold and uranium mining in the region is having a detrimental effect on the surface and groundwaters and adjacent rivers due to run off from the tailing ponds. Acid mine drainage, which results from mining activities, is one of the most serious environmental effects which also affects many South Africans living in the region .
Today, the Gauteng province is a heavily populated region, with more than 10 million people residing there. There are both gold and uranium mines located throughout the basin. Furthermore, the region has become significantly contaminated with radioactive waste, with 50 tons of this waste entering watercourses in the Far West Rand goldfields alone.
The Ezulwini underground mine, operated by Gold One International since 2012 and forms part of the Cooke Underground Operations, is located in Gauteng province, extracts gold and since 2009, has started up operations to extract uranium which was withheld for several years until uranium prices increased.
It has two separate ore bodies, with one containing gold and the other containing gold and uranium. Further, there have been some examples of environmental catastrophes resulting from mining activities here.
There is a concern over the 1200 hectare tailings storage facility that was constructed by previous owner First Uranium Corporation. The waste site ends in very close proximity to the Vaal River. Concerns arise surrounding the injustices over accessibility to polluted water surrounding the informal settlements, where inhabitants and miners are at risk of contamination and the associated health risks. Air pollution, further, in this region is an issue due to unrehabilitated tailings dumps which causes dust, and there have been reports on this pollution triggering respiratory diseases among the local communities .
The health effects caused by mining has been recently documented, and in 2018, eight major South African mining companies including Gold Fields Ltd., AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony were ordered to pay compensation to any miners and their families who have worked in their mines since 1965 and have been exposed to silica dust or have contracted silicosis or tuberculosis .
In 2012, the Ezulwini mine was ordered to cease operations due to the protesting of its workers. The workers refused to return to work when ordered to . This unrest among workers was due to the collective unrest within the mining sector due to unsafe working conditions, but specifically in relation to the Marikana platinum mining massacre on 16 August 2012 in which 34 protesting miners were shot dead by South African police. As a result of the protest in Ezulwini mine, 1,435 miners were fired from their jobs .
With mining continuing to be expanded in the Witwatersrand region, the outlook for the environment and the local communities looks grim. Since the mining sector in South Africa is relatively unregulated, and without large scale epidemiological studies conducted on the surrounding communities, there is a concern that continued injustices will continue for these communities and the mine workers as they are not being protected from the harmful effects caused by mining gold and uranium.