Nine dead: Police descend on lawless ‘Lapland’ at Goudkoppies landfill

Gauteng’s top police brass are leading an operation near the Goudkoppies landfill site where bodies have been piling up, with nine murders in the past two weeks. 

Gauteng head of police Elias Mawela and Johannesburg district commissioner Max Masha joined Thursday’s operation, saying police were “stamping the authority of the state” and assisting local officers.

His office confirmed that 27 foreign nationals who could not produce documents were arrested, and that police recovered two stolen vehicles and seven stolen engines. 

Johannesburg’s member of the mayoral committee for environment infrastructure service, Michael Sun and council speaker Vasco Da Gama led their own site visit to the notorious landfill adjacent to the Golden Highway in the south of Johannesburg on Wednesday. Sun, echoing several residents, told the Mail & Guardian that the area was known to be full of guns and illegal goods and said he hoped that police would seize them. 

Gauteng police spokesperson Mavela Masondo, however, said the purported firearm confiscated by police in images being circulated was a toy replica, and that only knives had been confiscated.

The city’s consultations coincided with the discovery of another four bodies on the Golden Highway on Wednesday morning. The men were found on the opposite side of the Goudkoppies landfill, where five other people were killed last week after security guards at the landfill run by waste management service provider Pikitup were ambushed by an unknown number of armed men. Two other security guards are recovering in hospital. 

Sun described the ongoing activities around the landfill as a “warzone”, but said it was unclear whether police were investigating links between the two incidents.

It has emerged that an ongoing complaint over community environmental health and safety concerns, and findings from an investigation at the site were passed on from the city’s environmental health department to the provincial department of agriculture and rural development, which have the powers to shut it down, according to details in the communication. 

For its part, Pikitup said a joint working committee would be formed to deal with issues such as crime, undocumented foreign nationals, illegal dumping and the illegal structures that have mushroomed outside the Goudkoppies landfill site.

During Wednesday’s public site visit, the South African Municipal Workers Union called for the closure of the landfill until it was compliant. Eldorado Park residents, who said they lived closer to the landfill than permitted in the city’s bylaws, want the more than 20-year-old site to be permanently closed and rehabilitated. 

Although the actual immigration status of the hundreds of people who have turned the former dumpsite into a home are unknown, the place is said to be guarded by heavily armed men protecting their turf. 

In written complaints to the city’s various bodies, residents alleged that law enforcement were too afraid to conduct operations in ‘Lapland,’ where a full eviction took place in 2016 only for rebuilding to occur a year later. 

The city council’s Sun described the conditions at Goudkoppies “horrendous,” and conceded that Eldorado Park, a stone’s throw away from the site, was negatively affected. 

In a Facebook post, Sun said officials were threatened from entering the informal settlement because its “Basotho occupants are armed with AK47s”.

“I have tasked officials to hold a multi -stakeholder meeting; we will not allow the city to be hijacked from us,” the post said. 

Sun said the site was known for armed men intimidating city staff. 

“I was informed that our officials were intimidated and were told not to come there. When we arrived at the entrance of Lapland, around 20 of us, I immediately saw them calling each other. Immediately my colleague said we must leave because they are aware of the danger there, but I said ‘No we will not: we came to find out what is happening here’,” Sun wrote as he detailed the tense moments that characterised the council’s visit to the site.

“Around 10 of them approached us and I told them we are observing and not disrupting; there were no smiles and they were very intimidating, but they walked away. Our colleagues also felt intimidated because they had been there before.”

According to Sun, about 50% of the site is already under rehabilitation, but he conceded that urgent measures were needed to address the effects on nearby residents. He said a 500m buffer zone was required between landfill sites and residential properties and the city was considering solutions such as spraying to deal with the smell, as well as addressing the waste water and debris blowing into surrounding areas.

Regarding the 2016 eviction of Lapland’s residents, Sun said the South African Human Rights Commission had intervened to halt it. He said the rights of residents and the site occupants needed to be balanced.

It is a dilemma for the city. An approach aligned with human rights would mean evicted occupants of the settlement are provided with alternative accommodation — but if the people affected have no legal immigration status, the city cannot provide housing. 

“You saw the conditions there: these people don’t have basic rights, the conditions are appalling,” Sun said.

“We have to consider issues of whether the city can buy houses for undocumented foreign nationals. The commission must come on board and engage on solutions, because stopping it [the eviction] may be driven by good intentions, but that did not resolve anything.”

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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