South African Mariette Liefferink, who features in Frederik Gertten and Sylvia Vollenhofer’s Jozi Gold, has been compared to legendary US campaigner Erin Brokovitch.
But the industry squarely Mariette’s sights is gold mining, and one whose effluent and dry waste produces level of toxicity similar to those of Chernobyl. The film is selected for CPH:DOX F:ACT Award Competition.
Mariette may be an oddity, but she is a very effective one. Immaculately (sometimes ludicrously) coiffeured and possessing of a wardrobe straight out of Dynasty, she has been leading a one-woman campaign against the gold mining industry since hearing of the plight of farmers living in the land adjacent to the mines.
But she became equally, if not more, concerned by the plight of village residents, mainly of colour and always poor, living on the land formerly owned by the mining interests.
The environmental issue is two-fold. Since the mines were closed, water has gradually filled the shafts, in the process becoming contaminated by iron sulphide and other minerals which the mining industry has unearthed. When aquifer levels are raised, this poisoned water irrigates the land and staple crops become hosts for the deadly contaminants. Sediment from the local Robinson Lake has levels of uranium toxicity 40,000 higher than normal, the film points out.
On the other hand, the enormous dunes, referred to as “the mountains of Johannesburg”, formed over decades of excavation, and on which kids have played and surfed for years, are shot through with uranium. The dust that blows off these dunes spreads across a city with an urban population of over 4 million residents. What’s more, these dunes have halved in size over the years due to wind erosion and seepage into the local waterways.
The film further tells us that that for every ton of gold that was mined in the region, another 100 tons of uranium were also brought to the surface.
While Mariette is at the vanguard of effecting change (we will know at the film’s end if she is successful in her attempts to relocate the desperate residents of Blyvoor village) her methods are distinctly odd. When she meets the CEOs of gold mining concerns, she is fawning and respectful. Her handwritten notes are poorly managed and her pen never seems to work, if she has remembered to take one at all. She also conducts guided tours around the contaminated land in full power dress and heels.
What’s more, her backstory is fascinating. A former evangelising Jehovah’s Witness who would do the rounds within the townships with her four kids in tow, she felt abandoned both by the movement and by God himself when her marriage broke down. She subsequently threw herself into activism, and when she discovered the cavalier attitudes of the mining companies she came to the realisation that God had also lost interest in mankind, and it was up to her “to restore some sense of justice.”
Despite (or maybe because of) all this, co-director Gertten is an avowed fan. “She is an inspirational person in the sense that she is a grandma and she is driving herself alone out to the townships and camps,” he says. “Most journalists would only go with protection, but she is going there by herself. She is very brave. She has been doing this for a long time and has built trust among people, and you only do this by coming back all the time, and by caring.”
Gerrten has worked in South Africa since the mid-1980s, getting to know co-director Vollenhofer around this time. “She was one of the really early black journalists who was [there during] Soweto 1976,” he says.
“When the story was apartheid, we talked a lot about the gold mines as the reason why the UK and other countries didn’t want to abandon [South Africa], as there was so much strategic business, and of course there was all the rumours about the uranium trade to the US, the UK and Israel,” Gertten continues.
“We talked about the mine workers. They were the strongest union. The mine workers were the most unionised, and the most important people in the struggle. The current president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was then the mineworker’s leader. Now he is a billionaire as a mine owner.”
But nobody talked about the environment at that time, Gertten notes, even though there was a lot of anecdotal evidence about people becoming ill from the dune dust.
“In the light of this corona crisis this film is about public health, but mostly around the poorest people in the country, these 1.6 million living really close to these uranium dumps,” he says. “The strange thing about this mine story is that everybody knows, but nobody knows. It’s like the elephant in the room… Everybody sees it but nobody talks about it.”
He adds: “The apartheid government didn’t do anything because they were too dependent on taxing the mining companies. And the new government has also been corrupted by the mines – they are also dependent on them – so nobody is actually doing anything.”
The character of Mariette has proved divisive during the struggle, but it was never the locals who took exception. For them, she retains a heroic status.
“At some premieres [in South Africa] some lefties were criticising Mariette for being too privileged to talk about this,” explains Gertten. “But then the guys who have lived on the uranium dump, they stood up and said, ‘Hey, come on, Mariette is the only one who has been coming here for 10 years. She is the one who has made a difference for us, not you’.”