Lecture Theatre 1, School of Environmental Science, Wits

“The time has come to hand out the topics for this term’s assignment,” announced the lecturer, putting on his reading glasses. A buzz of nervous energy hummed through the lecture hall like a swarm of bees.

Thabo closed his eyes and crossed his fingers.

“While I have done my best to give you the topic you wanted, this hasn’t always been possible,” the lecturer said, and cleared his throat. He looked up, straight at Thabo.

Thabo’s heart was pounding. “AMD, AMD,” he muttered under his breath, just loud enough for his friend Xola to hear.

“Man, you’re obsessed,” said Xola.

“What is AMD anyway?” Refiloe asked.

“Acid Mine Drainage.”

“Why do you want this topic so bad?”

“Ja, it’s like it’s a matter of life and death to you,” Xola teased.

“It is…”

“Been doing lots of extra reading?” Refiloe joked.

“No man, I’ve lived this.”

Thabo still had nightmares. He still saw his aunt lying on her deathbed, trying to fight right to the end, when the cancer had riddled her whole body.

“Cancer strikes anywhere, anytime,” his mother had told Thabo. But Thabo was convinced, knew, that this cancer had been caused by the water at home. He had watched animals drink from the old mine pools and then die. He had watched plants shrivel up when they grew where the water collected around the old mines. He had seen the rusted, corroded pipes that carried the mine water, the oil slicks in the river, and the fish floating belly-up, all white and bloated.

“My aunt died because of AMD,” Thabo told Xola and Refiloe. “Our village is near a mine. The old, abandoned shafts fill with water and the pyrite exposed in the mined rocks reacts with the water, which then flows into our rivers and streams – where we get water to cook and wash. Plus, the kids are playing in the water at the entrances to the old mines. That water is heavily polluted by sulphuric acid and heavy metals. I have tried to warn them, but they won’t listen.”

“Man, I’m sorry … I had no idea,” said Xola.

“That’s the problem. People don’t have any idea of how bad it is, or of how it can seriously affect your health. And so nothing’s been done about it.”

“Settle down, everyone!” boomed the lecturer. He was becoming flustered by all the chatter in the hall and his face was turning red.

“The topics are…”

Still the hall was buzzing with chatter.

“The topics are!” shouted the lecturer, then he paused until everyone stopped talking.

“Michelle Ambrose: ‘The Impact of Air Pollutants on Communities’. Thabo Akani: ‘The Impact of Acid Mine Drainage on Community Health’. Janine Miller: The–”

“Yes!” hissed Thabo. “I got it!”

“Man, you’re lucky,” whispered Xola. “I hope I get the topic I wanted.”

* * * * *

The SMS came as Thabo and Xola were walking back to res at the end of lectures.

Thabo was excited, telling Xola that getting AMD as a topic meant he could go back to his village to do research. It meant he could see his family: his mom and dad, his sister Thabiso and baby brother Sipho. He couldn’t wait.

But as Xola swung open the door to the res Thabo’s phone beeped.

Sipho in hospital. Plz call.


“What is it?”

“It’s my brother. He’s in hospital. I’ve got to go,” Thabo replied as he sped off, taking the steps two at a time to his dorm room.

“What’s happening?” said Thabo in a trembling voice when he managed to get through to his sister.

“They found a cancerous tumour in Sipho’s leg; the same kind of cancer that Aunt Essie had. It’s happening again Thabo.”

“I’m coming home,” said Thabo. “I’ll catch the next bus. Where’s Mama?”

“At the hospital with him. They are operating today. Hopefully they will be able to take the tumour out and the cancer won’t have spread. If it’s spread…” Thabiso’s voice trailed off; he could hear she was crying.

Thabo threw some clothes into a sports bag and took a taxi to the station to catch a bus home.

Images flashed through his mind as the bus motored along the highway; he couldn’t stop seeing his aunt sick and then dying. The thought of his little brother like this made him shiver despite the warm weather.

No, not this time. This is not going to happen again! Not to Sipho and not to anyone else, Thabo thought to himself.

* * *

Tell us: Can Thabo really do anything to stop people getting sick from the polluted water?