The Politics of Rising Acid Mine Water


Robertson Lake, West Rand

The full version of this paper is published In the journal Urban Forum, DOI: 10.1007/s12132-013-9198-9.

I recently gave a paper titled “Dissident Water” at Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, the 9th International Conference of the Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA) at London Metropolitan University, 15 – 17 November 2012. It was part of a panel on Dissident Weather, along with Helen Mallinson of London Metropolitan University, Nabil Ahmed of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, and Adrian Lahoud, of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College and the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.

What follows is a summary of my paper, retitled “The Politics of Rising Acid Mine Water.”


In their introduction to Johannesburg The Elusive Metropolis, editors Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe propose that Johannesburg’s section – the connection between its underground world of mineshafts, stopes, tunnels and labour and above-ground world of towers, commerce and capital – holds the secrets to its modernity. They argue that it was in depth, that the “calculus of capital and dispossession, technology, labor and the unequal distribution of wealth” operated (Nuttall and Mbembe 2008:17). In what follows, I extend these ideas, through the investigation of rising acid mine-water, an actant that transgressed the place assigned to it in this politics of verticality, thereby flattening surface and depth and making new political articulations possible.


The Witwatersrand gold fields are both the richest in the world and the most disputed issue in the history of economic geology. A number of contested theories explain its origins, one hydrothermal, one sedimentary, one a combination of the two. All that has been agreed by scientists is that since 3 billion years ago, five tectono-thermal events, one of which was a crashing meterorite, have introduced or mobilized gold deposits along with high concentrations of uranium and pyrite in the cracks and cavities of carbonaceous conglomerate. This has produced a fractured, dense network of layers, fractures and faults, in which gold is found as veinlets, specks or grains in a seam anything from a couple of centimeters to a little over a meter thick, sloping at an angle of 22 degrees towards the south.


The Witwatersrand Goldfields

Deep Level Gold Mining

This has produced the deepest gold mines in the world. TauTona at Carltonville on the West Rand is the deepest, currently 3,900 metres deep. By comparison, the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is 830m tall, only 21% of the depth of this mine. TauTona comprises 800 kms of underground tunnels. The journey to the rock face takes an hour. At the rock face, temperatures rise to 60C. The mine is a mega structure requiring all the systems and services that go into tall buildings, a technological network of shafts, tunnels, dams, pumping stations, circuits, conduits, vents, pipes, ropes and cables that hoist, lower and distribute water, air, electricity, dynamite, equipment, ore and people between surface and depth. It is the epitomy of Walter Benjamin‘s urban hell, invisible underneath the urban heaven of the city (or the gold bullion or the shareholders annual report) in which it is disguised.

Split between Surface and Depth

Maintenance of this disguise has relied on syntaxes of concealment and separation – scientific reports, racialized institutions, race thinking, capitalist divisions of labor, bio-regulatory policies, planning, urban design etc. all of which work towards maintaining a dualism between the underground and the surface and keeping the underground out of sight. That access to the underworld, the mineshaft, is a discreet point, a wormhole, rather than a contiguous territory, made its potential for erasure all the more complete.


Cartography played a key role in this, as illustrated in the two maps below, both drawn in 1896.

In the first, Plan of Johannesburg City and Suburbs, street grids, major urban spaces, railway lines, townships and surface landscape features are clearly articulated and named. South of the city, mines are named and drawn as bounded surfaces, with no registration of their underground topography or even of the location of their shafts or surface workings. A locational map on the bottom left hand corner of the map omits the mining properties altogether, simply overlaying township portions onto farm portions. The only indication that this is a mining town is a table in the bottom right hand corner indicating quantities of gold produced between 1887 and 1897.

Source: Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand

Source: Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand

The second map, Johannesburg, Z.A.R., is a sectional drawing cut through the earth, two inclined gold reefs, a geological fault, a mine shaft, and eight underground mining tunnels. No indication of the identity or location of the mine is given, other than that it is approaching its southern property boundary. Whereas in the first map the city was only drawn in plan, in the second the mine is only drawn in section. Ground surface has ceased to be important – it is a wavy line subsumed by a firm, level datum from which subterranean levels are measured.

Source: Johannesburg Public Library

Source: Johannesburg Public Library

The two maps privilege different views and offer different readings of space, one pertaining to the above ground city, the other to the below ground mine. When mining maps are drawn in plan, cities all but disappear, as in the map of the Witwatersrand Goldfields below, drawn in 1967, where they appear simply as underlined names in a territory of mining claims. City maps and mining maps did not speak to one another at all.

Source: Johannesburg Public Library

Source: Johannesburg Public Library

Aesthetic Practice

It was in the forms of visibility of aesthetic practice that dissention against this rigid delineation of above and below was formulated and where the overlap between the two was depicted and recomposed. One of the most striking evocations of this is William Kentridge’s animated film Mine. In it, Soho Eckstein, a mining magnate, prepares his morning coffee by pushing down the plunger of a French coffee press. Instead of stopping at the bottom of the pot, it bores through the table and the floor and drills a deep shaft through the stopes of a mine below. The plunge of the coffee press instantly unites the worlds of mine owner and mineworker with Kentridge’s own autobiography (through the personal pronoun, mine).  This lays out a new narrative terrain for figuring out the city and personal history as entanglements of surface and depth and in which accounts that only acknowledge surface incidents and accidents are shown to be inadequate.

A second project that reconfigures surface and depth, this time using architectural techniques is one by architect Ivan Kadey. Kadey traced the connection between the grid of the original triangle ground given over to the city of Johannesburg and the mining land to its south. This was rotated through 90 degrees, translating the plan of the city into the section of a building that resembled both the shape of a mine’s headgear and a yacht’s sail. Primary streets in the city plan were translated into pilotis, which extended into a subterranean network of mining tunnels. This structure floated in a pool of water whose edge was delineated by the city’s southern freeway, marking the ancient inland ocean shoreline where gold sediment had settled. Kadey speaks of this as “revealing the city’s underbelly and exposing its secrets.” In one rendering of the building from below, a rust coloured patena creeps up its structure, foretelling of the acidic minewater that would rise and threaten the city nearly 20 years later.

Courtesy: Ivan Kadey

City Press Building. Courtesy: Ivan Kadey



The Tweelopies Spruit

In August 2002, the first recorded incident of acid mine drainage from a Witwatersrand gold mine took place. On the abandoned Harmony Gold Mine, to the west of Johannesburg, water began to decant onto the surface first through a borehole and then through an old vent shaft pushed open by the force of the water. This act of dissent turned the underground inside out, brought the consequences of its commodification to light and inaugurated new modes of dissident socio-political life. To paraphrase Ranciere: “that which had no right to be counted as a speaking being made itself of some account, setting up a community by the fact of placing in common … the contradiction of two worlds in a single world: the world where it was and the world where it was not, the world where there was something between it and those who do not acknowledge it as speaking being” (Ranciere 1999:27).

Water and Deep Level Gold Mining

Water and deep level gold mining are indistinguishable. Early in mining’s history, its primary use was for dust suppression after blasting. As mines got deeper however, water was introduced as a coolant. It was refrigerated on the surface, dropped down a shaft, circulated through cooling coils, sprayed onto the rock face, purified through settling at the base of the mine and then pumped up again. Complex systems of dams and pressure reducing valves were required underground. It was used to generate energy, drive turbines, power mining machinery and move ore. It was evaluated, modeled, tested; scientific laboratories, associations and journals were set up to study it, discuss the problems associated with its behaviour, evaluate new technologies and propose more effective ways of engineering it.

Chemical Transformation


Ziploc … ed Poison

In this process, it was chemically transformed. Mining introduces oxygen to deep geological environments where it has not been before, resulting in the oxidation of the minerals occurring in mining voids. The most common of these is pyrite, an iron sulfide, along with other toxic metals (arsenic, cadmium, copper cobalt, uranium and zinc). As it oxidises, pyrite produces sulphuric acid which, when exposed to water, produces a highly acidic, saline solution in which the heavy metals are mobilised.

Cause of Decanting

While mines are operational, water and water levels in mining voids are stabilised by pumping.  Little pyrite oxidation occurs below the water level and few metals are leached from above. When mines close and pumps are turned off however, water seeks its pre-mining piezometric level, rainwater enters abandoned mine shafts and underground water reticulation systems leak. Underground water levels rise, leaching out the chemical toxins, and eventually decant onto the surface.

Decanting on the West Rand

When the water decanted west of Johannesburg in 2002 it received very little attention. It emanated from two abandoned mine shafts on a relatively remote mine and flowed into two seasonal watercourses. These turned yellow, all aquatic life in them was killed and a number of animals that relied on them for drinking water died (see Shortly after, Robinson Lake, a mine-waste site that had been sold by a mining company to a developer with plans to create a shopping center, private residences and a hotel, was found to have water nearing a pH of 2.0 that contained elevated levels of uranium and heavy metals. It was declared a radiation hotspot and fenced off. Amberfield, a retirement village built nearby, was abandoned when it was shown to be to exposed to radioactive airborne dust. Residents of Tudor Shaft, an informal settlement on a neighbouring tailings dam, were found to have inhaled or ingested dangerous amounts of radioactive material.


The Tweelopies Spruit


Robinson Lake


Amberfield Retirement Village


Tudor Shaft Informal Settlement


The Underground Redistributed

The water had re-distributed the underground across the surface of the earth and into the atmosphere, making geology – metals, salts, oxides and radio-active compounds, and politics – accommodations between governments and mining houses, fraudulent mining acquisitions etc. visible and knowable, not as hidden abstractions or scientific facts, but as forms of above-ground experience and matters of concern.

pipe etc

Radioactive air monitor, heavy metal clogged pipe

A New Politics

Unprecedented associations between scientists, activists, artists, politicians, newly floated companies, shack dwellers and farmers were assembled. Was acid mine water about mining, about waste, about water resource management, about air quality, about human health, economic development, land values, legal liability or ecological rehabilitation? To whom or what was it a matter of concern – the state, current mining companies, former mining companies, tax payers, tour operators, municipal authorities, shack dwellers, developers, farmers, hippo, fish, artists, people who live far downstream, people not yet born? If of concern to all of these and more, how did one put together an assembly that spoke a common language to discuss it, account for it, call it to order, assess its contradictory scenarios and make decisions about how to deal with its consequences? Should this be in parliament, in appointed committees, in public gatherings, in scientific journals, in art galleries, in the media or all of the above?


A raucous assembly

National Political Crisis

By 2010, the water had become a national political crisis. Scientific debates emanated from research councils and spilled into the media. Global capital flexed its muscles – a venture company was floated in the British Virgin Islands with a proxy in South Africa to pump and purify the water. It constructed test plants and courted the government for contracts. Artists revealed its consequences for health, crops and livestock; architectural students experimented with scenarios for urban and environmental remediation.

Yield. Courtesy: Louise Kritzinger

Yield. Courtesy: Louise Kritzinger

Towards the end of that year, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee visited the contaminated sites. In February 2011, an inter ministerial report entitled Mine Water Management in the Witwatersand Goldfields With Special Emphasis in Acid Mine Drainag , drawn up by scientific experts was released to the public (Council for Geoscience, 2010).


The report recommended neutralisation of the acid water already decanting on the West Rand and pumping to stabilise its levels underground in other parts of the Witwatersrand basin. A round of public meetings was held to rubber stamp the proposal. This was viewed as far from adequate by scientists and environmental activists who insisted that the extent of the potential contamination be acknowledged and that a more comprehensive approach be adopted – desalination, removal of heavy metals, radioactive monitoring, resettlement etc.

Public Meeting, Germiston Golf Club, 18 July 2012

Public Meeting, Germiston Golf Club, 18 July 2012

The Possibility of a Common World


What this truncated account of the ongoing political life of rising acid mine water reveals is that, in reorganising surface and depth into a sludgy, contested, fluid continuum, the water made it impossible to act as if what had formerly been two distinct realms – the above and the below, science and politics, humans and nonhumans, the visible and the invisible, those who know and those who do not, those who deliberate and those who do not, those who give orders and those who obey, do not belong to the same sphere.

Those used to positions of mastery of course, continue to act as if ignorant of this. They issue orders as to whose utterances are valid and whose are not and fail to recognise that what is at stake is the very constitution of political life itself. Briefing journalists before the release of the inter-ministerial report (Council for Geoscience, 2010) Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel said: “As a government, we want to give all South Africans the assurance that this matter is receiving attention; that the science is exceptionally good on this matter; and that there is actually no cause for panic about it. I want to repeat that: there is no cause for panic about it.” In response to this, the editor of environment responded, “Really, Mr. Manuel, do the words “don’t panic” make the problem go away? You and the government you belong to including your predecessor government have KNOWN about this problem for decades but you have turned a blind eye and allowed your citizens to be poisoned. Don’t come here with your DON’T PANIC orders. The people should be panicking and should be protesting against this mass violation of our natural environment not to mention the mass public poisoning that has come along with it.”

The scandalous dissent of rising acid mine water demonstrates that a common world does exist, that combinations between many systems are thinkable and that a topography that does not presuppose a politics of verticality is possible. Whether its logics will prevail or whether dualities will be reasserted will require ongoing vigilance that the equality as speaking beings of the partners in the conflict is upheld.

Rising Acid Mmine Water


Council for Geoscience (2010) Mine Water Management on the Witwatersrand Goldfields with Special Emphasis on Acid Mine Drainage. Report to the Inter-ministerial Committee on Acid Mine Drainage. Council for Geoscience, Pretoria.

Nuttall, S. and Mbembe, A. (eds.) (2008) Introduction. In Johannesburg The Elusive Metropolis. Duke University Press, Durham.

Ranciere, J. (1999) Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy. Trans J. Rose. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

“Trevor Manuel says “DON’T PANIC” about acid mine drainage,” environment, 26 February 2011. <>


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.