I Climbed a Mine Dump in Soweto

by | Apr 21, 2021 | Johannesburg, Soweto, Townships/Informal Settlements | 23 comments

In my recent post about the Chilli Pepper restaurant, I briefly referred to a mine dump at the end of Immink Drive in Diepkloof, Soweto.

Mine dump behind Chilli Pepper on Immink Drive
The big hill in the background is a mine dump.
View of mine dump at the end of Immink Drive
Another look from further down the street.

Like many Joburgers, I’ve always been both fascinated and appalled by these mountains of golden waste. Mine dumps are massive monuments to human greed, reminders of a time when insatiable hunger for gold drove powerful men to empty the earth beneath Johannesburg, pile it up where it didn’t belong, then leave that poisoned earth to blow dust into the lungs of former mine workers who — like the mine waste itself — got tossed away like garbage once they were no longer useful to the money-making machine.

The dumps soared above the city in the second half of the 20th century, competing for attention with downtown skyscrapers. Mine dumps came to define the geography of Johannesburg — one of many weird features that make this city unique.

Then in the early 2000s, the mining companies realized there was still quite a lot of gold in those dumps and began sifting through the waste again, trying to remove every last golden cent. Just like that, the mine dumps (especially the dumps close to the inner city) began to disappear. Since I arrived just over a decade ago, many of these waste mountains have been diminished into ragged, depressing-looking hillocks.

(Geographers: Please feel free to correct this lyrical yet overly simple and probably incorrect history of Joburg mine dumps.)

Street in Noordgesig
A mine dump in Noordgesig, another Soweto suburb not far from Diepkloof. In fact, I just looked at Google Maps and realized this is the same mine dump that looms at the bottom of Immink Drive, viewed from the west instead of the south.

I digressed for a bit there. But what I really want to tell you is I climbed the Diepkloof mine dump a couple of weeks ago with my boyfriend Thorsten and two other guys. Thorsten and his colleague Tebogo Ramatlo are making a TV pilot about the architecture of “matchbox houses”: the cramped, four-room houses built for Black and Coloured people in Soweto (and lots of other places in South Africa) during apartheid. Thorsten and Tebogo climbed the mine dump with their filmmaker, Dominique Vandenhout, to get a birds-eye view of the township. I invited myself along.

I’ve always wanted to climb a mine dump and I’m glad I finally did, although it was rather terrifying. Here are some photos of the journey.

Walking over a toxic waste stream
After crossing Soweto Highway, hopping the knee-height barrier, and wading through some garbage, we had to cross this fluorescent blue toxic waste stream. The rocky bank still looks like it has actual gold in it, but maybe it’s just rust.
Don't drink the water sign
I think this sign is telling people not to drink the water.
Dominique running up the hill
Dominique runs up the steep slope of the dump so he could film Thorsten and Tebogo climbing. I ran with him, of course, so I could stay out of his shots. This was not easy because Dominique is fast.
Guy on a lawn chair enjoying the mine dump
About a quarter of the way up the dump we met this guy, sitting on a lawn chair and chilling. He didn’t seem to be doing anything — just sitting and enjoying the view.
Climbing the dump
Climbing.
Thorsten's sketch of climbing the mine dump
One of a series of sketches Thorsten made to illustrate the sequence of the TV show. You can see few more of these sketches at @thethinking_hand.
Vegetation on the dump
I was surprised by how much vegetation grows on a mine dump. It’s mostly spiky weeds, which can really scratch up your skin if you run through them in shorts. I only realized this when we reached the top and discovered about 20 bloody scratches on my legs. Luckily the scratches have since healed and I don’t think they deposited any toxic chemicals into my body.
Tebogo looking zen
Tebogo, near the top, looking a lot more zen than I felt.
view near the top of a mine dump in Soweto
When we got to what I thought was the top of the dump, then realized with extreme disappointment that there was actually another whole level. We stopped here though. This was also the point when we suddenly heard fierce barking and saw four big dogs charging toward us and I yelled “F*ck!” right in the middle of Dominique’s shoot. The dogs belonged to shepherds who graze their cows on the mine dump and they retreated immediately as soon as their owners called them. They scared the crap out of me though.
Looking down on Immink Drive
Looking down on Immink Drive.
The crew.
The crew.
Tebogo and Thorsten on the mine dump
I’m not happy with this shot due to the positioning of that one pesky weed. But Tebogo loves it so I’m including it here, just for him.
Drawing of the same scene.

Our climb down was uneventful.

Thorsten, Tebogo, and Dominique climbed the dump again two days later to capture some more footage. But I decided one mine dump climb in a lifetime is enough for me. They climbed while I sat at Chilli Pepper and drank a Coke.

If you’d like to learn more about Soweto’s matchbox houses and the TV pilot Thorsten and Tebogo are making, tune in to 93.8 Mix FM at 7 p.m. South African time tonight (April 21st). They’ll be talking to architect and Mix FM radio host David Gurney about the project. (I was also on this show once and it’s super fun.)

Heather on the dump
Victorious “I’m on a mine dump!” shot. If you zoom in, you might be able to see the blood on my legs. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)

Follow 26’10 south Architects for updates on the matchbox pilot. I’ll also post more about the pilot in the near future.

23 Comments

  1. Albert

    The guy sitting on the lawn chair cracks me up. 🙂
    The view from the mine dump is awesome.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I know, it was so random and cool that he was there!

      Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    Such great views from up there, well done glad you got to do it. Love Tebogo’s pants.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes those pants are awesome.

      Reply
  3. Stan Morrison

    When we were kids the dumps were our playground. Great fun sliding down the slopes on cardboard-box toboggans. Eyes ears and mouths full of “toxic” sand but we thrived on it.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha, I wish I could have seen that. I think there was still a company doing mine dump boarding somewhere on the East Rand up until fairly recently.

      Reply
  4. David Bristow

    The yellow brick road, where the dogs of Soweto society howl …

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That’s also some good lyricism.

      Reply
  5. eremophila

    That random weed pointing where it does is hilarious, LOVE it????. Don’t blame you being concerned about dog attack, and glad it didn’t happen. My concern is about the Earth being strip mined. Horrendous the world over.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, I was commenting to my friends about how I am very rarely afraid of dogs but I was REALLY afraid in that moment. The dogs were charging fast and then stopped short and melted away as soon as they were called back. We never saw the people or the cows (although the guys saw them the next time they went up). Quite remarkable actually!

      Reply
  6. AutumnAshbough

    Wow. Any environmental reports on how toxic the dump is ?

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I’m sure there are. I think different mine dumps have different levels of toxicity. A couple of years ago I saw a documentary about an activist in the western suburbs of Joburg who advocates for people living near mine dumps in that part of the city. People were dying left snd right from inhaling the dust. But I think the ones closer to town are somehow not as bad.

      Reply
      • Terry Turner

        There’s a massive problem with toxic mine tailings in South Africa (and elsewhere).
        Here’s an extract from Wikipedia fyi.
        Tailings, especially tailing stored in water by tailings dam in ponds, can be dangerous sources of toxic chemicals, such as heavy metals, sulfides and radioactive content. These ponds are also vulnerable to major breaches or leaks from the dams, causing environmental disasters. Because of these and other environmental concerns, such as groundwater leakage, toxic emissions, or bird death, tailing piles and ponds often are under regulatory scrutiny. There are a wide range of methods for recovering economic value, containing or otherwise mitigating the impacts of tailings. However, internationally, these practices are poor, sometimes violating human rights, and the first UN-level standard for tailing management was established to mitigate these risks in 2020.[2]

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Wow, that last part about the UN standard is pretty crazy. Not until 2020?!

          Reply
  7. Maarten

    Heather you are correct by saying that your view on the history of the mine dumbs needs some more investigation. It is too simple to describe it the way you did. Als the way you described the process of sifting through the waste again needs some more investigation as there is much more to say about the reason why these companies started to do this. By the way and interesting to read about is that this is not done only for the gold that still could be inside the waste. Some of the dumps are also very poisoned and not fun to climb at all (e.g. Geluksdal, Springs and Brakpan dumps). The planning is that the SA Government really would like to remove these dumps nationwide but budget is the main problem to do all this.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Maarten. As I said, I was trying to keep the description short and simple as this is a personal blog post and and not a piece of investigative journalism. But of course nothing is actually simple in Joburg (or anywhere).

      Reply
  8. Nancy McDaniel

    so, what grows on the top that cows can graze on and is it toxic????? And then would they ingest stuff and pass it along in their milk and/or meat? Doesn’t sound too healthy to me.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      We were actually wondering about that too. Like do the cows become radioactive?! Thorsten and Tebogo actually developed a whole comedy routine around this subject but I’m not sure it will make it into the show.

      Reply
  9. Dimitri Balios

    Those distinctive plants with the whitish plumes were imported from South America and planted on the dumps to alleviate the dust and erosion. They flourish as they appear to be immune to the cyanide content of the mine dump sand.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Oh that’s so interesting! Thank you for sharing.

      Reply
  10. Terry Turner

    I grew up in Benoni, quite close to a mine dump. A group of us kids used to sneak off and walk to the mine dump with big cardboard boxes we found behind the shops. We’d climb to the top and then slide down on our boxes.
    It didn’t look anything like the pics you posted, it was smooth whitish sand. This was in the days before there was development of the Snake Road area. There was no road there – just a dusty path in the veld. We believed the veld was full of snakes so everyone called it the “snake road”.
    Our parents told us that the sand was poisonous, and that we shouldn’t play there. That’s why we used to sneak up there.
    Your post brought back lots of fun memories. Thank you.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks for sharing your memories. What if the Snake Road area. I don’t think I’ve heard of that.

      Reply
    • Junz

      Not sure you are still in Benoni, but I now live nearby at the adjoining suburb to snake road Farramere.

      The snake road “mountain” has now disappeared from sight. It’s been mined down flat by a brick and sand company I believe.

      I’m originally a durbanite and that mountain was a landmark fit many many years.

      Reply

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