MOGALE CITY - Patience Pumlangadu's black skin is now a yellowish color. "I put this powder on my face to protect it from the sun," explains the South African mother of three.
Pumlangadu makes this sun protection herself by mixing water with bits of crushed rock she says are "good for your health."
But in fact these rocks come from a nearby mound of earth, made up of waste from an old gold mine. It was at the end of 2010, a British specialist, Chris Busby, found that the level of radioactivity here was 15 times higher than normal, and recommended that the residents of the township evacuate as soon as possible.
Situated in the municipality of Mogale City, this informal settlement with a population of 5,000, named Tudor Shaft, is just down the road from one of countless radioactive dumps that dot the horizon in the region of Johannesburg. For more than a century, the mines of Egoli, "the golden city" in Zulu, have allowed South Africa to become the top economic power on the African continent. However, it has left behind numerous toxic footprints.
In 2011, a report by the regional authorities of Gauteng, the area that surrounds South Africa's economic capital Johannesburg, confirmed that 1.6 million people were living in townships near to, or even in, one of the 400 zones marked affected by mining waste.
Mariette Liefferink has been sounding the alarm for almost a decade: "The residue from gold extraction contains uranium," says the head of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), a local environmental organization. By looking at recent analyses, these dump sites also contain, amongst other things, "aluminum, arsenic, mercury and copper," she adds.
In Tudor Shaft, an almost sulfuric odor wafts in the air. The residents say that they are having more and more difficulty breathing. Ill from tuberculosis, some of them fear that their health is worsening. There have not been any reported cases of cancer yet, although, how can we be sure when no one has conducted a study?
Responsible for protecting the population against the risk of radioactivity, South Africa's National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) recognized, in 2011, that there was a "potentially dangerous situation" and recommended that the residents be "re-housed to a more hospitable environment."
"As a precaution, we have already moved about 100 families away from the contaminated zone," confirms Nkosana Zali, spokesperson for the municipality of Mogale City, the settlement's jurisdiction area. However, on the site, we are told that in fact only 14 households have been moved, and that the recommended 500-meter security distance is not enough.
Contaminated land, contaminated water
A representative of the Tudor Shaft community, Jeffrey Ramiruti, points his finger at the Gauteng regional authorities who told him to move onto this land in 1996, when it was already strewn with spoil tips.
"The mine had only just closed, and my family, and 53 other families, had to leave the miners’ barracks to come here," he remembers. "The local government promised that it would only be a temporary solution and that we would soon have government housing. But we're still waiting..."
Since houses are still not available, a bulldozer was sent at the beginning of July to start demolishing the spoil tips. But the excavation of the site was quickly suspended: "We took the case to court because toxic land cannot be raked up without first conducting a study on the environmental impact," says Mariette Liefferink, who is also in favor of the re-housing solution.
The Australian company Mintails, which specializes in the extraction of gold residue and contaminated spoil tips, has been put charge of this operation. It has announced that the water has been treated to protect it from the toxic dust. "This is only cosmetic. Next we'll have contaminated water," Liefferink accuses.
Before the judge's final decision, the radioactive dump sites have been surrounded by a plastic security cordon, to prevent children from coming too close. "This land is dangerous; it could make my child sick," says 20-year-old Poppy Morebondi. But when we asked her if she knew what "radioactivity" meant, like many of the other residents, she shook her head.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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