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.
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.)
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.
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.)
Follow 26’10 south Architects for updates on the matchbox pilot. I’ll also post more about the pilot in the near future.
The guy sitting on the lawn chair cracks me up. 🙂
The view from the mine dump is awesome.
I know, it was so random and cool that he was there!
Such great views from up there, well done glad you got to do it. Love Tebogo’s pants.
Yes those pants are awesome.
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.
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.
The yellow brick road, where the dogs of Soweto society howl …
That’s also some good lyricism.
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.
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!
Wow. Any environmental reports on how toxic the dump is ?
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.
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.
Wow, that last part about the UN standard is pretty crazy. Not until 2020?!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Oh that’s so interesting! Thank you for sharing.
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.
Thanks for sharing your memories. What if the Snake Road area. I don’t think I’ve heard of that.