Documentary Jozi Gold had its world premiere at the 21st Encounters South African International Documentary Festival this week, and some of what it revealed about mining pollution is truly shocking. Grethe Kemp reviews the film.
Directors: Sylvia Vollenhoven, Fredrik Gertten
Johannesburg is the most uranium contaminated city on Earth.
These and other shocking truths are revealed in new documentary Jozi Gold directed by South African writer, award-winning journalist, playwright and film maker Sylvia Vollenhoven and award-winning Swedish director and journalist Fredrik Gertten.
By focusing on the dogged efforts of environmental activist Mariette Liefferink, we are shown how Johannesburg’s mines have contaminated virtually everything in our city – from the water, to the air, to the ground.
While some communities live on radioactive land, others struggle with water laden with heavy metals.
But all of us – yes, every single Joburger – is affected by the mining fall-out in some way. The problem is that we don’t even fully know what it’s doing to us.
Liefferink herself is the kind of subject film makers dream of. The documentary’s opening shot sees her traipsing around an excavated field in sky-high heels, dressed to a tee in black tights, an orange blazer and plenty of jewellery.
A soft-spoken tannie with a clipped Afrikaans accent and coiffed blonde hair, she tells us later that she used to be a Jehovah’s Witness, so she’s used to be being “severely disliked”.
And dislike is a feeling she must drum up, as she chases down the CEOs of mining companies and holds the government department officials to account for exposing people to hazardous mining pollution.
Liefferink says she sees herself as a marathon runner instead of a sprinter, because her work requires a great deal of stamina.
In one scene, we watch her patiently phone a government department to lay a complaint about the discharge of untreated mine water into a river system.
It’s the 10th time she’s phoning, and she’s again sent from pillar to post.
She hangs up cordially, then blinks away tears.
But hounding the government officials – too often unsuccessfully – is not her primary work.
Liefferink believes that environmental and social justice are inextricably linked, and she works with communities to hold mining companies to account.
In one case, she laid a criminal complaint at the local police against the former owner of the Blyvoor mine, for numerous environmental infractions committed between 2008 and this year.
She didn’t think anything would come of it, but to her surprise, the state decided to prosecute the mining directors responsible.
It’s a huge victory for the Blyvoor community, which has been dealing with the effects of mining pollution for years.
A third of all the gold in human history was mined in Johannesburg, and it was what gave birth to the city.
But now we’re dealing with an environmental crisis that few of us even know the extent of.
Jozi Gold is a superbly shot documentary that we should all see. And Mariette Liefferink is someone who we should all know about, and support.
- Tickets at encounters.co.za. Screening in Cape Town at the Labia Theatre on June 16, 3pm