A haunting quest for justice through the hinterlands of Johannesburg, ‘Jozi Gold’ tackles the catastrophic fallout of the South African gold mining industry head on.
Jozi Gold (2019) is a shocking indictment of the South African gold mining industry and its toxic consequences. In just 74 minutes, directors Fredrik Gertten and Sylvia Vollenhoven weave together a story of activism with history and politics into a complex tapestry. The film illustrates the way Johannesburg became the most uranium-polluted country on Earth. It is a conventional documentary, but in the best sense of the word: informative, persuasive and haunting.
Jozi Gold teaches some startling facts: a third of all gold in human history has been mined in South Africa; for every tonne of gold mined, 10-100 tonnes of uranium comes with it, contained within the ore; Johannesburg is now surrounded by 600 kilotons of radioactive material.
In the opening sequence, a woman in red high heels navigates her way across a toxic wasteland in a shot that sets the tone for the documentary’s stark and often startling visuals. The woman is Mariette Liefferink, the unlikely leader of a campaign to raise awareness of gold mining’s toxic legacy.
A startling subject, Liefferink is fond of the ornate cheongsam dress, high heels and Prada sunglasses. Her studied glamour jars brilliantly with the often apocalyptic landscape through which she moves, a mismatch that comes to define the film’s aesthetic. Formerly a Jehovah’s Witness, she is convinced that “God has lost his interest in mankind”. With her environmental activism she seeks to fill the God-shaped void in her life.
What follows is a devastating journey through the hinterlands of Johannesburg. Pristine water flows from flooded mine voids, acidic and contaminated with heavy metals and uranium, poisoning the country’s water supply. The mine dumps, left open to the elements, look deceivingly like stretches of luxurious golden sand. The truth is these man-made deserts contain vast quantities of iron sulphide and uranium. Every time a wind whips up, this sand blows away in great billows and coats the city in radioactive dust.
Communities live in contaminated areas. Some are exposed to the same radiation that one would experience in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Children living in close proximity to the mines are always sick – with asthma, nausea or perma-flu. Local kids surf the sand dunes and innocently inhale alpha particles that have the capacity to alter their DNA codes. In Robinson Lake, where people swim, uranium levels are 40,000 times higher than normal.
In many ways, Jozi Gold is a quest narrative. Mariette, a new kind of knight, roams through the post-industrial wilderness, staging battles with various foes. She comes up against different kinds of monsters, from unscrupulous bosses to the impenetrable bureaucratic machine. The virtue she seeks is age-old. “This,” she says, “is about justice”.
Jozi Gold is punctuated by phone calls to various organs of state as Mariette threatens to escalate her complaints if they are ignored. She is transferred interminably between departments. Always courteous, she deals with this bureaucratic nightmare with remarkable equanimity.
“This is almost the tenth time I’m calling,” we hear her say at one point, and beneath her polite tone is a steely persistence. Here we witness the politics of delay in action. Bureaucracy becomes a political weapon, a means of slowing any social or political action to a glacial pace. But glaciers still move.
Where does responsibility for this calamity lie? Mining directors refuse to be held accountable. It is, they maintain, a matter of legacy: the current boss cannot be held responsible for the mistakes of those who ran the mines 10, 15 or 100 years ago. It is an insidious argument and Mariette refuses to swallow it.
As the film progresses, Liefferink’s case gathers momentum. Small victories grow large. When a wind blows across a desert, tiny grains of sand gather, getting heavier. Eventually these heaps grow so large they cause an avalanche. This is precisely the process we see at work in Jozi Gold. Each success is a small grain of sand, insignificant on its own but earth-changing when piled on top of each other.
Although rooted in the specificities of the South African gold mining industry, Jozi Gold often transcends its subject matter. As traditional belief systems collapse across the globe, Liefferink shows that environmental activism can provide people with “a new purpose for living”. Mariette ends the film by reflecting on the nature of her victory. “Success to me is not just one big success. It’s very many small successes”.
Jozi Gold is a blueprint for the environmental battles still to be waged. For anyone concerned about the future of the climate struggle, this is an important film.
‘Jozi Gold’ is available to stream on Vimeo.
Words by Anna Lamche
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