What to do when we run out of gold? Re-claiming the post-mining landscape – a vision for the West Rand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Griet Juwet and Marjolein Lyssens



Mining in the West Rand

Gold mining has a very drastic impact on its environment, on local societies and economies. In the case of the West Rand, Johannesburg, more than one century of large-scale mining activities has supported the national economy for decades, but also radically transformed the local landscape and strongly influenced inequalities in the local society.
But as mining companies face increasing extraction costs and rising liabilities, gold mining is nearing the end of its life-cycle in the region. While underground shafts are being re-exploited to extract the remaining gold, dumps and tailings are reprocessed to recover what wasn’t extracted before, and new open pits are made to mine the small parts of the reef that have not been mined yet, the end of gold mining in the Witwatersrand is approaching.

Temporary but devastating

Mining is always a temporary activity because it is about extracting a non-renewable resource. The life span of the industry was extended time and time again in the Witwatersrand, by adopting new technologies and always depending on the fluctuation of the gold price. But since the 90s, the rising labour cost and the low ore grade of remaining gold reefs make the cost of extraction so high that the industry will soon be economically unfeasible. Moreover, increasing awareness about the environmental and social impact of the mining industry is being translated into environmental legislation and action from civil society to hold gold mining companies accountable for the damage they have externalised since the start of mining.


Environmental and social impacts

The liabilities faced by the remaining gold mining companies in the region are huge, and so far, a holistic and sustainable way of dealing with the critical environmental situation has not been proposed.

Acid water (AMD) has filled the underground shafts and tunnels, and decants and spills at moments of high rainfall. The cost of controlling the rising water level by pumping is now carried by society as the government has set up several pumping installations to try and limit uncontrolled pollution. Nevertheless, after more than a century of mining, underground aquifers have been contaminated, and wetlands and river systems have been heavily polluted. Heavy metals, and even uranium, have built up in their sediments and can be re-mobilised under the ‘right’ environmental circumstances to further poison downstream farm land and underground aquifers.

Mine dumps and tailings dams further contribute to the pollution of water because on their surface, metals are dissolved in acid water that runs into surface water systems and can also infiltrate into groundwater aquifers. Moreover, these huge man-made hills contain cyanide and heave metals, making for a toxic material that forms a hostile environment for plants and animals alike. They are composed of fine particles that can be transported by the wind and spread out over large surrounding areas. This means that not only the dumps themselves, but also the land around them, contains elevated levels of all kinds of metals, including uranium in the case of the West Rand.

The decline of the mining industry, that has supported the local economy for decades and attracted many migrant workers to the region, has also left behind a social legacy. The West Rand has to deal with high unemployment rates, due to a surplus of low-skilled workers, that can not all find employment in the area’s services, commerces and remaining industries.




Lack of comprehensive knowledge in the face of uncertainty

It is obvious that the region’s environment is in a state of crisis and faces an extremely uncertain future. The cost of landscape rehabilitation will be enormous, and it is impossible to hold the remaining mining companies accountable for damage that has been left behind by more than a century of mining in the region. Mining that could only be feasible by externalising environmental and social costs and taking profit of cheap labour, a system that was supported by the essentially unequal political regime of Apartheid.

Today, the mining industry has to find ways to mine for closure. To end their activities in a responsible way, that takes into account landscape rehabilitation and environmental clean-up. Moreover, alternatives should be found for the social and economical impacts of this declining industry.
However, a holistic and sustainable vision for the post-mining future of this region doesn’t exist.  Such a vision can not be developed by mining companies alone, but needs to be supported by local and national govermnets, academics and experts, local communities and civil society. Bringing these often conflicting actors around the table would be the first step to make a sustainable post-mining future possible. Moreover, such a vision needs to be based on very specific, often technical knowledge that crosses many disciplines. People that deal with the territory of mining are often very specialised in a specific aspect, be it geology, biology, mine engineering, politics, anthropology or history, but all of these and more should come together if a feasible and integrated approach is to be developed.


Mindset within the mining industry

Within the mining industry, the rising liability costs and pressure from civil society are being felt, and new concepts are being developed to invent a more sustainable way of mining (which is in itself of course a contradiction).

One of the concepts used by the industry is ‘mining for closure’, or setting up a mining company in a way that takes into account the essentially temporary character of mining. From the start, the layout of the mine, the construction of roads and buildings, the clearing of plants and top soil, etc. could be done by keeping in mind the desired end-state of the mine after closure. However, this concept often remains on paper in the form of a closure plan that is made only to obtain a mining permit but is not applied to the daily workings of the mine.

The concept of closure mining, even goes a step further. This would be a way to set up a mining company so that it evolves from mining as a core business, to a landscape rehabilitation company. Such a business model would be based on rehabilitating the landscape, by progressively re-processing old mine dumps and extracting the last gold, to then stabilise pollution and rehabilitate the area in a productive (and therefore economically feasible) way. Ideally, systems of cleaning water and soil can be based on organic processes that work with the biology of plants and micro-organisms, called phyto-remediation. Even more ideally, local communities and remediation experts can be involved to make the process sustainable after mining companies have left.


Need for a broadly supported and integrated approach

But these concepts remain wishfull thinking as long as the post-mining future of the West Rand is not part of a common vision that is supported by all the actors involved. While mining companies have created the dramatic impacts on the region’s environment, society and economy, the local communities will have to deal with them for many decades to come. Re-claiming this territory will mean rehabilitating the landscape, triggering social change, and building an alternative economy, long after gold mining companies have left the scene.



How to imagine a post-mining future? The origins of a new field of knowledge

A reflection about an integrated vision for the future of this damaged landscape and its inhabitants has started some years ago, when the architects Andrew Watkins and Dorothy Tang started looking at the region from a spatial perspective, and attempted to visualise the different aspects of the problems in an understandable way. Later, the urbanist Tahira Toffa developed an overall strategic approach for the Witwatersrand that integrated environmental, economical and social issues into a spatial, urbanistic project. Lately, a follow-up research project was developed that looked at the West Rand specifically from a landscape-urbanism point of view.

Taking the landscape, and its essential elements of soil and water, as a starting point to look at the neighbourhoods and mining landscapes of the West Rand, is a way to re-think how this region looks and works.


Water and soil as basic ingredients for an alternative future

Re-imaging the cycle of water and soil, that has been so disturbed by mining activities, could be the way to think of an alternative future. The process of cleaning acid water could trigger a transformation of the territory where the cleaned water can be used to fuel agriculture on different scales, and even trigger an urban transformation of townships and informal neighbourhoods.

Changing the way mining companies manipulate soil and tailings deposits, can be the start of a landscape transformation where pollution can be stabilised, and even cleaned by means of metal-tolerant plants that have a productive capacity as well for fibre production, as bio-fuels or alternative uses. Both water and soil remediation can in this way form the basis for an alternative economy, based on the rehabilitation of the landscape, that could transform the region’s identity and society.

Urban densification, social mixity, rehabilitated natural systems, ecological tourism, new forms of learning and collaborating, new economies, all of these could be triggered by looking at this region and its landscape of pollution with a new and integrated vision for the future. Imagine that one day, the local inhabitants are exactly the ones that help rehabilitating the landscape and can benefit from all the products produced in a completely new ecosystem!


Link to a master thesis that looks at a future for the West Rand:


-       Gold mining is coming to an end in the West Rand

-       The region faces an incredible environmental and socio-economic crisis

-       Not one actor can solve the problem by itself (not the government, mining companies, local communities, …)

-       There is an urgent need for an integrated and broadly supported vision for the future

-       This vision should be based on the rehabilitation of the landscape as a way to imagine an alternative future

-       Working with the basic elements of water and soil could trigger new economies, social change, urban transformation and environmental rehabilitation




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o   WEBB, N.L. (2011) When is enough, enough? Advocacy, evidence and criticism in the field of urban agriculture in South Africa, Development Southern Africa. 28 (2). p.195-208.

o   WEIERSBYE, I. (2014), Phytotechnologies and mine rehabilitation [lecture series], Phyto-technologies, WITS University, Johannesburg, fall 2014.

o   WEIERSBYE, I. and BOTHA, J. (2010), Ethnobotanic and forage uses of plants on mine properties in the Witwatersrand  Basin gold fields, South Africa, in: FOURIE, A., TIBBETT, M. And WIERTZ, J. (eds.) (2010), Mine Closure 2010, Australian Centre for Geomechanics, Perth.

o   WEIERSBYE, I. nd DYE, P.J. (2010), The mine woodlands project in the Witwatersrand Basin gold fields of South Africa: strategy and progress, Mine water and innovation, IMWA, Sydney.

o   WEIERSBYE, I., ROSSOUW, A.S. et.al. (2009), Evaluation of a 20-40 year old gold mine tailings rehabilitation project on the Witwatersrand, South Africa, in: FOURIE, A.B., TIBBETT, M. (eds.) (2009), Mine Closure 2009, Perth, Australian Centre for Geomechanics.

o   WEIERSBYE, I.M., SUTTON, M.W., GALPIN, J.S. and HELLER, B. (2006), A GIS-based history of gold mine residue deposits and risk assessment of post-mining land-uses on the Witwatersrand basin, South Africa, in: FOURIE, A. and TIBBETT, M. (eds.), Mine Closure 2006, Australian Centre for Geomechanics, Perth.

o   WEST RAND. DISTRICT MUNICIPALITY (2012), Regional Growth and Development Strategy, Randfontein: West Rand District Municipality. Available from: http://www.wrdm.gov.za/docs/Documents/Economic%20Development/2012/WRDM%2... [accessed: 02/07/2014]

o   WHITE, S.(n.d.), Wetland Use in Acid Mine Drainage Remediation, [online] Available from: http://home.eng.iastate.edu/~tge/ce421-521/Steven%20White.pdf. [Accessed: 25/07/2014].

o   WILK, J., ANDERSSON, L., WARBURTON, M. (2012) Adaptation to climate change and other stressors among commercial and small-scale South African farmers. Regional Environmental Change, 13, p. 273–286.  

o   WINDE, F. (2013), Uranium pollution of water – a global perspective on the situation in South Africa, Vaal Triangle Occasional Papers, Inaugural lecture 10/2013.

o   WINDE, F., STOCH E. (2013), Threats and opportunities for post-closure development in dolomitic gold mining areas of the West Rand and Far West Rand (South Africa) – a hydraulic view Part 1: Mining legacy and future threats, Water SA, 36, p.69-74.

o   WITKOWSKI, E.T.F. and WEIERSBYE, I. (2002), Seed fate and practical germination methods for 46 perennial species that colonize gold mine tailings and acid mine drainage-polluted soils in the grassland biome, Natural forests and woodlands symposium III: multiple use management, policy refinements and scientific progress, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Kruger National Park, South Africa. p. 218-255.