At lunchtime the next day, Amahle and Thabo headed up to the mine shaft head. Amahle’s father was gathered with a group of men, drinking coffee poured from a Thermos.
“Thabo!” said Amahle’s father. “We’ve been chatting and think that the only way forward is to go and have a sit-in at the bosses’ offices. Just wait there until they will see us. We support you. But something has to be done now. So we’re thinking of not going to the shafts, but rather heading up to the offices.”
Five faces stared at Thabo, waiting for his reaction.
“Will that get you get into serious trouble?” asked Thabo. “I wouldn’t want you to be at risk of losing your jobs.”
“We will take that risk,” said another voice.
The men informed their supervisor that they had to go on some urgent business. In their dusty boots and overalls they arrived at the smart mining offices, out of place among the wood-panelled walls and slippery leather couches.
Soon they were joined by six of the village women and three other men Amahle’s father had rounded up to support the AMD cause. Next came Thabo’s mother, Noku’s mother, the school teacher, and other concerned parents. Nineteen determined people filled the waiting room.
“Can I help you?” ask the receptionist.
“We’ve come to see Mr van Rensberg,” said Thabo boldly.
“Did Security let you all in?” asked the receptionist incredulously.
“Yes, we told them we had an appointment.”
“And do you?” asked the receptionist.
“Well … no. Not exactly. You wouldn’t give us one.”
“Then I will have to call Security to escort you all out,” said the receptionist primly as she picked up the telephone.
“No, please,” said Thabo, leaning over the desk and taking the phone out of her hand. “We will wait until Mr van Rensberg is available.”
“Then you’re going to be waiting a long time.”
“We’re not in a hurry,” replied Thabo.
“Very well, suit yourself. Wait then – but Mr van Rensberg is in a meeting all afternoon,” she said.
The group sat down and waited and waited. One hour passed, then two, then three. Finally, Mr van Rensberg and two other men emerged from an office. They balked, stopping in surprise, as they saw the sea of faces turned to them.
“Can I help you?” asked Mr van Rensberg suspiciously.
“I hope so,” said Thabo jumping up. “We’re here to discuss the urgent problem of AMD.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” replied Thabo. “I couldn’t get one.”
“Well, please come back when you have one,” said Mr van Rensberg striding towards the door in his grey suit. His two colleagues followed him.
Two large women and a man quickly jumped up and blocked the door.
“Florence,” said Mr van Rensberg to the receptionist, “please call security!”
But as Florence picked up the phone Thabo jumped across the room and ripped the phone out of the wall.
“We’re not leaving Mr van Rensberg, until you listen to us!” There was an angry murmur of support from round the room.
Mr van Rensberg swallowed; beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. His colleagues looked nervously around. One man bit his lower lip while the other man clutched his briefcase to his chest like a shield.
“Very well young man,” said Mr van Rensberg. “What is it you wish to say?”
Thabo pulled out his cellphone and showed Mr van Rensberg a picture of his brother in hospital.
“Do you see this child? This is my ten-year-old brother. He is in hospital fighting cancer because of AMD. And there others too, two more children suspected of having cancer because of AMD. My aunt died of cancer from AMD water two years ago. The pipes that carry water around the mine are corroded and leaking, it’s getting into the streams and rivers we use, animals and crops are dying, all because of this polluted water. And nothing is being done about it. How would you feel Mr van Rensberg? How would you feel if the water you drank and bathed in every day was killing you and your family? Huh?”
Mr van Rensberg remained very quiet.
“I’m very sorry to hear this … this is indeed a tragic story. But I’m afraid there is nothing we can do. Those mine shafts were abandoned over forty years ago. It’s now the Department of Water Affair’s problem. Not mine.”
The room fell into a deadly hush. All the eyes turned to Thabo as if searching for an answer.
“But,” said Thabo, “all mines cause this problem. You continue to mine, and this makes it worse. Surely as a mining company you should take some responsibility?”
Like spectators at a football match, the eyes turned to Van Rensberg as he spoke.
“We do take responsibility,” said van Rensberg, remaining icily calm. “Legally, we have to ensure that none of our mines produce AMD, and we follow those laws. But we are not responsible for abandoned mines that produce AMD. Sorry people, but you’re having a ‘sit in’ at the wrong place. You should be at the Department of Water Affairs. Now, please excuse us, we have another meeting to attend.”
The three men marched out the door.
“Thabo,” said Amahle with wide, incredulous eyes. “Why did you get us all here without finding this out first?” There were mutters from the people. Thabo felt like a fool.
“Because,” replied Thabo, “I tried to call first but no-one would speak to me.”
* * * * *
As they drove home in her Golf, Amahle fumed.
“I can’t believe it Thabo! I can’t believe you’d put us in that situation without having all your facts straight.”
“I told you Amahle,” said Thabo, his voice rising, “no-one would talk to me.”
Thabo buried his head in his hands.
“Man, this is too much. Too much stress for one person – my brother, the community. Feels like I’ve got to keep it perfectly together for everyone.”
Amahle pulled up outside Thabo’s house.
“You’re right, Thabo, there is too much pressure on you. You’re human. Of course you’re allowed to make a mistake.”
Then she leaned over and to Thabo’s surprise and delight, she kissed him.
“Thought that would make you feel better,” she laughed.
“Much better!” smiled Thabo.
Just then Thabo’s mother came out of the house.
“Thabo, I’m glad you are home. Got good news and bad news. Good news is Sipho is coming home in three days’ time! But bad news is that no-one has seen Patrick since school ended. Sipho asked if you can go to his house and check on him tomorrow.”
“Of course,” said Thabo.
* * *
Tell us: Are there any old mines near you that might be causing water problems? What could you do to check?