/ 24 July 2014

Top Star: Jo’burg’s reel-estate wasteland

An aerial view of the old Top Star Drive-in in Johannesburg.
An aerial view of the old Top Star Drive-in in Johannesburg.

The Top Star Drive-in ended its life with a whimper, closing the doors on four decades of back-seat fondling with a screening of the lacklustre action film Running Scared in 2008.

Perched on one of Johannesburg’s largest mine dumps, it had drawn many movie-goers over the years. But when the projectors fell silent and the large white screen went dark, the cars left and heavy mining machinery moved in to recycle the dump.

The five million tonnes of earth – the world’s largest oil platform weighs about a million tonnes – have now gone. It was turned into slurry and piped 40km to the east, to Brakpan, where it was reprocessed for gold.

The mining company DRD Gold extracted four tonnes of gold from the soil and created new mine dumps.

What is left on the original site are parts of the sides of the old dump and a large crater-like hole. Stagnant green ponds of water, bigger than Olympic-sized pools, break up the uneven floor of the crater. Layers of white calcite give way to various shades of red in the pools, giving a cross-section of all the chemicals and heavy metals exposed by mining.  

Token attempt
There is no fence to stop people from wandering around the dump, which is crisscrossed by tyre tracks. The only token attempt to show that this is DRD Gold’s private property is a wall and gate, which is stuck open, at the southern side.

Inside the crater, the sides block out the view of Johannesburg. From the ridge, the city centre is only a kilometre away. AngloGold Ashanti’s headquarters rise into the sky, covered in a poster of a smiling miner.

The dump traces its roots to the mining boom and was started in 1899. It was first known as the Ferreira dump after the nearby deep mines that created it. Back then, the city did not extend that far south.

By the 1940s, the old mining barons had abandoned their shafts when they became unprofitable. By then, the Ferreira dump was 50m high and was put to another use – factories were built on it.

Then the mine owners applied for a township to be built on it. But members of the city council, quoted in the Rand Daily Mail in 1961, said it should not happen until a commission was appointed “to investigate the whole matter of building on old mine dumps”.

Finally permission was given, on condition that the council could not be held responsible for health or environmental problems. The official notice was signed off with “God save the Queen”.

Hotel proposal
The township was never built but the mine owners proposed that a hotel be built on the site. And, to take advantage of the dump’s close proximity to the city, they also planned to use its angled sides as illuminated 60m x 60m billboards.

When this fell through, the surface was tarred and the Top Star Drive-in was opened. The dump could now pay its way and for the next 40 years, Johannesburg had a drive-in close to the edge of the city – until the rising price of gold made re-mining the dump feasible.

Pipelines, billboards and stagnant water pools are all that remain of the mine dump that was a city beacon yet posed a very real environmental threat. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In 2008, Crown Gold Recoveries, which had already been re-mining other dumps in the province, applied to mine the Top Star.

Crown Gold is owned by DRD Gold.

At first, the South African Heritage Resources Agency went to court to oppose this, saying the mine dump had been there for 60 years and therefore was protected. With the other mine dumps disappearing, the agency said it was critical to save this one to preserve the heritage of Johannesburg.

‘Unique character’
The environmental impact assessment, undertaken by Crown Gold Recoveries, also said the dump “provides the central city with its unique character and visual cultural landscape”.

With increasing pressure to save the drive-in, the mine responded by saying it would be opening up valuable real estate and getting rid of a source of air and water pollution.

The heritage agency then withdrew its case and the minerals department issued a mining permit.

But in its own closure plan for the province’s mines, the department said the land used for mine dumps is so polluted that it should never be used for residential purposes. Now, the site of the Top Star is a wasteland.

There are more than 200 mine dumps in and around Johannesburg, and they are slowly poisoning the city. The Cancer Association of South Africa says this is the only place on Earth where large numbers of people live next to mine dumps.

In the worst cases, they live on the dumps, such as at the Tudor shaft outside Krugersdorp.

Heavy metals
The soil contains a mixture of heavy metals and chemicals, such as uranium and lead, but their impact on human health has not been established, although the association says 400 000 people are exposed to low levels of radiation because of the dumps. In 2008, earth-moving machines, with high-pressure hoses, began breaking down the Top Star dump. Remnants of this activity – rusted metal pipes the width of a wrestler’s wrist – lie strewn around the crater. Two larger pipes that took the slurry to Brakpan leave from the southern end of the site.

James Duncan, the spokesperson of DRD Gold, said the site could be redeveloped, and the environmental management programme requires that it be rehabilitated. This entails eliminating the potential of acid mine drainage and radiation. The process is under way and will be completed within 18 months, he said.

Settlement in a dust storm

Re-mining operations near residential areas are blamed for many health problems.

The mine dumps near Riverlea, 10km west of the Top Star site, are also being re-mined by DRD Gold. The community was forcibly moved there in the 1960s. Because of vegetation and dust-control measures, the dumps did not pose a threat.

But residents claim that dust has become a serious problem since re-mining began. Faridea Appolis said last year that she was suffering from skin problems because of it and pointed to white sores on her arm. “That mine makes us all sick. People here are more sick than they are not,” she said.

Granwell Njars said: “In August, the wind blows the sand so much that you cannot even see in front of you. It goes into bread bins, into your television. It even eats steel.” 

James Duncan, the spokesperson for the mine, said at the time: “Dust measurements from this particular site are generally within the regulated limits.”

Because his company did not want to get involved in a media debate, he did not want to say anything more.

Referring to allegations of health problems, he said: “The burden of proof rests with the complainants.”