How waste from the mining industry has perpetuated apartheid-like policies in South Africa

Through studying the residues of South Africa’s mining industry – a core infrastructure of the apartheid regime – Stanford historian Gabrielle Hecht shows how its deleterious effects continue.

While apartheid – South Africa’s brutal racial segregation laws of the 20th century – officially came to an end in the early 1990s, its harmful effects persist today, says Stanford historian Gabrielle Hecht in her new book, Residual Governance: How South Africa Foretells Planetary Futures (Duke University Press, 2023).

“You can see apartheid from space,” Hecht bluntly states in the book’s opening chapter.

The amount of waste mining generates is immense, almost incomprehensibly so: It takes one ton of discarded rock to produce just one 14-karat gold chain. The massive piles of mining discards – known as tailings – can be seen on satellite imagery.

For the past two decades, Hecht has traveled throughout the Witwatersrand plateau, also known as the Rand, a 100-kilometer expanse where one-third of Earth’s gold has come from.

Amid the tailing piles pulse the activities of most impoverished, Black South Africans and migrants trying to salvage their own lives out of the scraps: Some dangerously go deep into abandoned mine shafts in search of what little gold remains, if any. Others use the toxic leftover debris to make bricks, sold to people tired of waiting on the government’s 30-year-old promise for universal housing, to cobble together their own makeshift shelter.

When Hecht met with one man running one of these operations, he gestured at her colleague and asked, “Does she know that all the quartzite around here is radioactive?”

During South Africa’s winter months, winds blow toxic dust off these tailing piles, sending residues downwind, where – no coincidence – Black residents reside and breathe in these noxious particles. White communities are found upwind – further topographical markings of the racist policies that continue to shape the country today.

This is another reason, Hecht says, apartheid can be seen from space.