Data mines 3.0

  • The first We are Data Mines looked at the human relationship with the body, while the second looked at our changing relationship with information technology. This text expands its focus to our fractious relationship with the natural environment, using the space of the mine dump to reflect on how extractive mining capitalism continues to structure Johannesburg. The mine dump reflects our brutal past, troubled present and uncertain future

In 2018, alarming news reports claimed that Johannesburg, South Africa was faced with imminent catastrophe. According to municipal officials, illegal miners (often called zama zamas) had reached perilously close to subterranean gas lines as they went about their clandestine search for gold in the abandoned mineshafts and tunnels that snake under the city. Were they to accidentally breach the lines, the effects would be nightmarish. Newspapers recounted images of the city being incinerated like King’s Landing, with the M3 highway and the vast Soccer City Stadium disintegrating into fire and ash.

An investigation by journalist Fatima Moosa questioned these claims, suggesting that instead of a real public safety threat Jo’burg’s xenophobic mayor Herman Mashaba was trying to whip up a moral panic against desperate foreign miners operating without permits.

Nevertheless, the mental image of Soccer City stadium, which was expressly built for the media spectacle of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, suddenly imploding and collapsing within a fireball of devastation offers a potent metaphor. Johannesburg is a city built of the back of extractive industries. While this has brought vast wealth for some, and created a modern city, it has come at the cost of enormous human and environmental suffering. What founded and sustained the city also threatens to destroy it.  This thread connects the earliest days of raw frontier mining to the digital capitalism of the present.

This contradiction is visible in the uncanny ring of mine dumps and pits which surround the urban sprawl of Gauteng, looming like the cyclopean ruins left by vastly hideous Lovecraftian beings. As Moosa describes the landscape:

Capable of seating 94,700 spectators, Soccer City is nevertheless dwarfed by nearby slag piles left over from decades-long mining operations. The slag heaps hold massive dumps of crushed rock discarded after gold extraction.

Even Johannesburg’s greatest, most confident architecture is outmatched by the grim shadow of the dumps.

The discovery of gold in 1886 was like a big bang, completely reshaping South African society and the political economy. This explosion of commerce has left behind a toxic legacy. Unattended mine dumps seep metal particles into the soil and contaminate water through acid mine drainage.  Plumes of uranium, cyanide and lead blow off into poisonous dust-clouds. While this affects everyone in range, it is most destructive for the often-impoverished communities living closest to the dumps. They are constantly subjected to the severe risk of cancer, respiratory disease, neurological damage and many other health problems. Some parts of Gauteng have been so devastated by the effects of mining, like the Wonderfonteinspruit water system, that they have been declared ecological disaster areas. The spatial logic of capitalism creates these despoiled areas and communities which are destroyed for the profit motive. It also creates a ticking time-bomb for future generations, with some referring to mine waste as South Africa’s Chernobyl.

In the post-Apartheid city, the mine-dumps have taken on complex, but often hidden associations. If you scroll through the music videos, films, tv shows and photography made in the city since the advent of democracy in 1994, you will always see flashes of these hulking structures. But they are more a background texture than the main focus, used primarily to give a general sense of place. But as Bettina Malcomess and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon write in a study of religion in Jo’burg, the mine dumps are dynamic “territories of liminality, toxicity and uncertainty”.  As dangerous as they remain, they are still sites of human life and activity, from religious groups holding their most sacred rituals on these blighted edge lands to the scavengers eeking out a living off the lucrative waste hidden in the piles of mutated sand.

The dumps are a physical representation of how capitalism constructs landscapes. But does this physical space pierce into our psyches? Does this clawing logic of extraction seep not just into the soil, but the human soul?

The Witwatersrand is the site of the largest gold deposits ever discovered. Or, to put it another way, half the gold ever mined in human history has come from here. For a short while, Johannesburg was like the Silicon Valley of its day, attracting the most ruthless and revolutionary capitalists to make fortunes in the new frontier of extraction. As the historian of early Jo’burg Charles Van Onselen has demonstrated, the city was built on an ethos of cowboy capitalism, of getting the gold by any means necessary. This ruthless logic saw the Randlords’, the Steve Jobs’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s of their times, become fabulously wealthy through daring, cunning and unrelenting sociopathy. This rapacity was institutionalised into law by colonial and Apartheid rulers, ensuring that a steady stream of labour would be fed into the gaping maw of the mines.

As the struggle against Apartheid escalated and democracy beckoned, new possibilities tempted. But as writer Bongani Madondo observes “fastforward to the nineteen-nineties, I look at it this way: from the very day Mandela walked into the Union Buildings as the head of our collective leadership, the wolves descended. White big business, comrades, black thugs currying favour, everyone descended, drawn by the lure of gold”.

Such a kill or be killed, frontier ethos defines us still. Johannesburg breeds a hustler logic, in which the individual starts to see themselves as a business, with the only goal that really counts being profit. Some people choose to fully embrace this anti-social logic at its most brazen, aggressively asserting their wealth and status with bullet-proof luxury vehicles, steroid usage and hire-calibre firearms. Like its film noir spiritual double, Los Angeles, Joburg blurs the lines between wild west capitalism, outright criminality and cultural production. It is at once a dream factory and a shooting gallery.

At the dawn of the early 90s, the new freedoms of democracy were soundtracked by house and kwaito music, hosted in frenetic clubs and orgiastic raves. The drugs that helped fuel this creative boom, and the party spaces they were ingested in, were controlled by a notoriously violent bouncer mafia centred around the former boxer and occasional actor/model Mikey Schultz, along with his main henchmen Nigel McGurk and Faizal ‘Kappie’ Smith. Linked to a string of murders, their crimes were homage in a bizarre 2002 novelty song by former Big Brother contestant, ‘Bad’ Brad Wood. A one-time police officer, Wood publicly bragged about his apparent connections to the bouncer crew. He himself is no stranger to violence, including being involved in a fatal shoot out with zama zama’s at a mine owned by former President Jacob Zuma’s nephew.

But Schultz was to rapidly exceed Bad Brad in notoriety. He and his crew were hired to do dirty work for local mining tycoon Brett Kebble. Kebble was cosmopolitan and urbane, connected to top politicians, and a huge collector of South African fine art. Kebble was a genuine lover of culture, even sponsoring a lucrative prize in his name. But he was also an arch criminal, involved in a nether world of fraud and bribery. Kebble ultimately orchestrated his own murder, hiring Schultz and the boys to do the killing. The aftermath of the shooting ultimately landed former Interpol chief Jackie Selebi in jail, while the killers received full immunity in exchange for evidence. This meant that in 2014 they were able to reenact the murders they themselves had committed in the film 204: Getting Away With Murder.

According to investigative journalist Mandy Weiner, the Kebble murder left a power vacuum in the Johannesburg underworld. Into this breach stepped charismatic and murderous Czech fugitive Radovan Krejčíř, a man so infamous in his home country that two feature films have been made based on his life. From a cocaine white, Michael Mann style mansion perched atop a hill in the upmarket Bedfordview suburb, he schemed to take over the criminal world through bribery and bullets. After a long saga involving car bombs, assassinations in broad daylight, political scandals, torture, drug busts and ‘whack houses’, Krejčíř was eventually arrested in 2013, but his reputation and legal dramas persist. His life in Johannesburg was recycled into the poorly received comedy-drama Bedford Wives– a light entertainment series that missed darker social resonances.

Money is a passport to the highest echelons of Jo’burg society. The origin of the fortune is less important, engendering a dangerous attitude of might makes right. It is the logic of extraction taken into the self- the individual is a company, relentlessly devouring from society until the law or death stops them. The emergence of digital technology intensifies this cultural logic, embedding the distorted self in the wilderness of mirrors that is Facebook and Instagram. These platforms create the pressure to stunt publicly by creating an illusory perfect life to display to followers. For many, these pressures can lead to a vicious cycle of living off credit. A common refrain you hear in the city is of the person who blows all their money on a sports car, leaving them struggling to pay rent. They post pictures of their loot on Facebook, while behind the scenes they are living in a dump. The post-Apartheid, networked neoliberal self finds transcendent meaning in relentless consumption- with shopping malls and boutique stores as its cathedrals.The same rapacious ideology is at the centre of the environmental crisis which will define the parameters of Joburg’s future.

All the current science points to an apocalyptic worsening of climate breakdown, global warming and resource scarcity in the coming decades. As harrowing as this reality, its effects will be felt differently based on wealth and class. Already evidenced in the aftermath of war and disaster, poor and black people will bear the brunt of climate catastrophe. The rich and powerful may embrace a logic of sacrifice zones, where they use their money and resources to keep business as usual going for themselves, while building walls and fortresses to protect themselves from the chaos outside. Rather than a bright landscape of consumerism for all, the near future may be a patchwork of high-tech enclaves set against generalised suffering outside.

In contemporary Johannesburg, politicians, the media and capital are besotted with the idea of a “fourth industrial revolution”. They claim that society will soon become a digital playground of seamless access, automation and clean technology.  But this image of a streamlined future omits how digital technology is itself imbricated in the dirty circuits of an extractive industry. Along with the waste in mine dumps, the city is struggling with e-waste, the often-toxic refuse left from cellphones and computers. As a report in the Mail and Guardian revealed, containments from e-waste are sinking into groundwater and causing chronic illnesses. The traditional industrial poisons from mining have been joined by their 21stcentury counterpart.

The mine-dump could be a snapshot from this worst-case scenario future, a poisonous Mad Max desert of rust, thirst and heat-death. Off in the distance, the lights of the cyberfeudal towers of the elite mockingly flicker. This blighted world is the endgame of centuries of mineral extraction, colonialism and class war from above.

But we can also see the mine dumps as a challenge. We can give into the power of their evil architecture and accept a gradually dying world. Or we can strive to grown something new out of the ruins, to rehabilitate and regenerate these spaces, to fight to replace the toxicity with life and nourishment. The mine dumps serve to remind us that our current economic order poisons both people and the living planet around them. Everything about them conveys menace, exhaustion, depletion, death. But we have to learn to live with this broken reality, and find a way to make something better out of its poisonous dust.


Haysom, Simone. ‘ Lance’s Last Stand’. Adda, November 16, 2016.

Larkin, Jason. ‘ The Toxic Landscape of Johannesburg’s Gold Mines’. Wired,18 June 2014.

Malcomess, Betina and Wilhelm- Solomon, Matthew. ‘Valleys of Salt in the House of God: Religious Re-territorialisation and Urban Space’. Routes and Rights to The City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg, Palgrave, 2017.

Maneta, Rofhiwa. ‘This is How We Lost Him: Bongani Madondo and Rofhiwa Maneta remember K. Sello Duiker’. Johannesburg Review of Books, 1 April 2019.

Mhlanga, Thulebona. ‘ South African Are Drowning From Mine Waste’. Mail and Guardian, 16 March 2018.

Moosa, Fatima. ‘Claim that Zama Zamas Pose Threat to JHB is Xenophobic’. The Daily Vox, 3 December 2018.

Weiner, Mandy. Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Exposed. Pan MacMillian, 2018.

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