Johannesburg - As thousands descended on Orlando West to pay their respects to the family of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a multimillion-rand clandestine drug laboratory was quietly operating three streets down the road from the late Struggle icon’s Soweto home.
The Hawks and the police launched a midnight raid on the property on Makabeni Street, after receiving a tip-off from members of the community who grew suspicious of the mysterious activities.
Gloria*, one of the neighbours, said she was not surprised that the police and the Hawks discovered mandrax tablets, powder, an unidentified solution and equipment in the house.
Speaking to The Star on Thursday, Gloria described the five-room house, which has three outside rooms and a toilet, as “mysteriously quiet”.
“I doubt that anyone who lives on this street has been into that house. People die around here and communities support each other, but nobody from that house comes to any of the funerals,” she added.
Some residents living on Makabeni Street said there was something strange about the recently renovated premises with its high walls.
Once a week, the son - whose father died a few months ago - arrives there, switches on the lights and then switches them off again a few days later, neighbours claimed.
While they had never seen anyone else except the son at the house, there had been some noise and movement, according to them.
Neighbours said they had been suspecting that something strange was going on.
Brian Mdluli, who stays not far from the house, said he often saw a grey Mercedes-Benz parked at the entrance to the house, which turned out to be a drug lab.
“The man who owns the house is in his mid-40s. Once or twice he came to switch on the lights in the house. I am told that he also drives a white van,” said Mdluli.
But the owner doesn’t speak much to the neighbours, as he is hardly ever at home, he added.
“He seems to be aloof. He quickly walks in and out. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to notice him or disturb his illegal drug operations, as we are now hearing from the police and seeing on TV,” Mdluli remarked.
Makabeni Street was closed off from the early hours of on Thursday, with police cars parked outside.
Forensic and narcotics investigators were also at the scene, collecting evidence.
Inside the house, police found chemicals, mandrax, as well as a pulveriser, which is used for the grinding of various materials.
According to the police officers, one mandrax tablet weighs 9g and costs about R40 on the streets.
One of the neighbours, who refused to be named, said she heard a loud noise while she was asleep, when the police arrived to raid the premises.
“Our street is usually quiet. We hardly hear any noise, only on weekends. I decided to go out.
“I saw a lot of policemen. I didn’t know what was happening until I heard in the morning from the neighbours that it was a drug bust.”
Drugs were a huge problem in the community, with many children hooked, some of the neighbours said.
“Nyaope is one of our biggest challenges when it comes to this community and our children.
“These kids steal from us, because they want money to get their next fix.
“As parents and residents of Orlando we are tired of the drug problem,” said an elderly resident.
While investigators were still busy in the house, national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole said the breakthrough in the fight against the scourge of drugs was made possible by the local residents.
“This breakthrough emanated from the collaborative work between the community and the police,” he said, adding that they were still searching for the owner of the house.
“The community have played a commendable role in this intelligence-driven operation.
“They must be recognised for their valuable assistance, as we continue to advocate for partnership in policing,” he pointed out.
“We are appealing to the neighbouring community or anyone with information to come forward and report it to the police.
“We welcome any further details that could assist in concluding this case. This drug lab has been in operation for some time. It has employers and supervisors.
“There are a number of suspects. There are also sellers, who I think are linked to this set-up,” Sitole said.
“To date, we have been able to arrest a number of suspects for drug-related crimes in Orlando over the past year,” he added.
* Not her real name