Every conceivable space in Bosplaas, an extension of Hammanskraal north of Pretoria, has been turned into an illegal dump. Dirt roads spread like arteries off the main tar road, cutting deep into the bush of people's plots so trucks can offload commercial and household waste. Waste – wool offcuts, perhaps – falls off one truck and the vehicles following in its wake squash it into the earth.
The road is the boundary between Gauteng and North West Province, and runs past Hammanskraal's main factory district, a relic of Bophuthatswana's attempts to create local industry. The two biggest dumps, one for industrial waste and the other for residential waste, were in operation for 20 years before they were closed last year. They are separated by a few hundred metres and a few houses.
Industrial waste sprawls across Joanna Semenya's plot. Between the thickets of thorn trees, piles of wool – which have hardened and now crunch underfoot – have formed a new topsoil in this once fertile area. A woman with no gloves picks her way through it for leftover lumps of charcoal.
"In the 1970s, we allowed the sand to be taken for R2 a load and we were told this would be replaced," says Semenya, as she takes shelter from the 37°C heat in the shade of her house this week. With the sand dug out, the contractor then offered to pay her family R500 a month to use the plot as a dump site.
Her 83-year-old mother signed the agreement in 2003 with Tirmac, the company with which she had made the initial deal. Owned by an Alfonso Carrado, it signed similar agreements with five other plot owners.
Neither of the two dumps is fenced or lined to prevent seepage, or has any of the requirements put down in the National Waste Act. Walking around the residential dump, Maria Mashigo, the deputy chairperson of the local community authority, says cattle and children roam freely.
"You know what children are like. They want to play and they come here. There are no fences to stop them; a few years ago two drowned when one of these dumps filled with water from the rains."
Threat to underground water
Children are often the victims of illegal dumps and it is a problem that makes headlines. Two weeks ago, a child in Cape Town died after coming into contact with chemical waste at a dump. Seven others were taken to hospital. It is bodies of water like these that water affairs warns are a serious threat to underground water, especially in cases where people rely on boreholes, as they do in Hammanskraal where supply is sporadic.
The water in Semenya's yard has drained away, leaving muddy patches. Her contract ended on December 31 and the area has not been remediated. The contract, creased by water stains, says Tirmac has to return the land to its original state. "Now my land has no value and I cannot farm on it. I am scared because there were even trucks with medical waste coming here."
She has gone to the local authorities and to Carrado. "Every time we try to take action, we are told that we have no say in the matter." The six landowners hired a lawyer but got nowhere, and can no longer afford to take this route.
We phone Carrado's office for comment, but are told he is out of cellphone reception range and won't be able to answer any questions this week. The Moretele municipality, however, has already inspected the dumps. "They told us not to worry about this because there was no problem," says Semenya. "They were with the companies."
Documents obtained by David Leeuw, a local activist, show that the dumps have been a topic of discussion for a decade.
Sitting on the stoep of a house just down the road from the dump sites, Leeuw sorts through a pile of thick grey files, and says the community has been failed by those who should be protecting it. "This is a place where Nema [the National Environmental Management Act] does not apply," he says. Leeuw has been fighting for the environmental rights of communities like Bosplaas since 1994, and has correspondence from 2003 between the municipality and the provincial department of agriculture, conservation and environment about the two dumps.
The documents show that the dumps had already been in operation for a decade, but the provincial department wanted them closed down. This, however, did not stop the municipality from using the dumps for its waste. Minutes from a council meeting in 2003 show that the municipality knew the dumps were illegal.
The municipality then contracted a consultant to get the dumps licensed by the department of water affairs, for which they were charged R1.5-million. Minutes from a meeting in 2008 say the consultant was not successful and that "the Bosplaas site has not yet been permitted". A second consultant was hired for R1.7-million, the minutes show. The permit was never granted.
The municipality does not seem to be able to comment on the matter. It says it does not have a spokesperson, and efforts to speak to the person the municipality says is "dealing with the dumps" prove futile.
Community leader Mashigo says they were not told about any of the municipality's licensing plans, but in 2009, they had hired a lawyer to contact all the companies using the dumps, along with the local government, and national departments.
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa responded by sending in the Green Scorpions. They arrested six people who happened to be at the dump, but that was as far as she could go, and in a letter to the community she said it was up to local government to make guilty parties remediate the dumps.
The provincial government intervened and closed the two Tirmac dumps in Bosplaas. Mashigo says all this did was divert rubbish trucks to the bush around the community, and to other big illegal dumps in the area.
Locals say the biggest culprit is Ceramic Industries, through its local tile factory Samca Tiles. At every site, piles of tiles are the dominant scenery. But its chief executive, Nic Booth, says the company had contracted someone who turned out to be dumping illegally.
"We dumped him like a hot potato," he said. The company's waste goes to Tshwane now, but the tiles remain because they do not know which are theirs. "They are inert, so have no environmental impact," Booth said.
Legal action is not being taken against any of the companies and the dumping continues.
For now, the children of Bosplaas have taken to rearranging the letters on the "Do not dump" sign to say rude things in Sesotho – the municipality's name easily becoming "balls".
Fresh piles of rubbish next to the sign show that nobody is reading it.