After over a century of mining, a 16,000km maze of underground pathways extend across the famous gold mining belt of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
At least 350 illegal miners, popularly known as Zama Zamas (slang for try your luck), operate in the West Wits area alone, at any given time.
Experts believe the illegal miners in that particular area support, at least, 5,000 dependants.
Nationwide, statistics by the International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM), say there were between 5,000 to 50,000 illegal miners operating in South Africa.
ICMM, however, believes that the number was much lower than in Zimbabwe where up to 500,000 illegal miners were known to operate, especially in diamond prospecting.
For years, illegal mining has been an ever-growing concern across South Africa and the African continent. Largely due to socio-economic issues such as unemployment and growing poverty, many individuals were pushed to become illegal miners in a desperate bid to put food on the table.
The trade is usually spearheaded by illegal mining syndicates, which were, however, professionally run and well organised.
According to South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), the most popular commodities in the illegal trade were gold, diamonds, sand and aggregates.
Mr Themba Khoza and Mr Liberty Ndou, both Zimbabwean immigrants living in tin and wooden squatter settlements of Sol Plaatje township, subsist on prospecting in the abandoned mine shafts.
Search for gold
“We’re not here because we love this job, but a man has to put food on the table,” says Mr Khoza.
The duo say sometimes they can spend several days underground in search for gold.
But, often, once they find the gold, they have to hide it as there were ‘robbers’ underground.
“Robbery underground is common‚ if any group outnumbers the people they come across‚ they take everything – food‚ water‚ torches and gold‚” says Mr Ndou.
He claims that he has never been part of any group involved in the underground robbery.
“There is stabbing and shooting underground‚ life is rough down there‚” he adds.
Mr Ndou points out there were areas which were fertile with gold and when word gets out‚ many groups change their directions and follow.
“The last three years we were all heading to Roodepoort (in the Greater Johannesburg area)‚ but now the Midrand (central Gauteng Province) direction is lucrative,” he explains.
Watery and stuffy
Mr Khoza says as they go down the belly of the earth, there were various directions.
“There are written signs of Midrand‚ Benoni (a town 40km from Johannesburg), Roodeport and Soweto. The previous owners wrote those names. It is like taking a gravel road to a particular destination. The difference is after about two kilometres, you go down and get another flat area and so on. The longer you go, the deeper it gets‚” he says.
Mr Ndou adds that it was dark‚ watery and stuffy underground.
“In some shafts, we struggle to breath.”
The groups identify areas where there were deposits of gold and start chipping them off. They all carry bags.
Last month, police reported that 14 illegal miners had been found dead in Benoni.
The killings of illegal miners have become a common occurrence in South Africa. On average, 100 illegal miners were reported dead every year, while authorities believe a lot of them died underground and went unreported.
Following the killings, there has been the suggestion by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) that the South African government decriminalise the activity.
“It is now obvious that focusing on criminalisation of the independent small scale mining, where there are millions of unemployed people desperately looking for jobs is not the solution,” it said.
“The federation is calling on the Chamber of Mines and Government to explore the possibility of legalising and regulating the small scale mining as a way of minimising dangers and also removing the criminal elements that send some of these desperate people underground,” it added.
The Chamber of Mines estimates that about 70 per cent of all arrested illegal miners were also illegal immigrants feeding a five-tier system which has the impoverished individuals operating at the bottom of the chain and unwitting, offshore metal refining companies at the top. The other three tiers consist of local and regional buyers of metals and other criminal elements participating in an industry that generates $500 million in revenue a year.
DMR says most Zama Zamas were from Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique.
“A number of illegal miners often leave a decent-paying job to earn more underground,” says Ms Sukoluhle Thebe, a Benoni residents, who has interacted with the illegal miners.
DMR deputy minister Godfrey Oliphant believes some of the illegal miners were former mineworkers who were retrenched.
“The country has recently seen an increase in illegal mining incidents that have resulted in the loss of life of both the perpetrators and in some cases the surrounding communities, mainly as a result of underground fires, fall of ground accidents and murder,” he said recently.
To tackle the problem, Mr Oliphant believes there was a need to understand the major factors fuelling the illicit activities.
“Illegal mining is largely fuelled by highly organised, dangerous, well financed and complex local and international crime syndicates which have up-to-date maps of mining operations. The syndicates operate in liquidated, operating and non-operating mines.
The kingpins mainly recruit unemployed illegal immigrants, providing them with basic survival necessities while training them on how to access the mine workings,” Mr Oliphant said.
DMR was collaborating with law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders to implement measures which will ultimately lead to the eradication of the illicit activities.
In South Africa, one needs a licence to start mining.
DMR defines illegal mining as “conducting mining activities without a mining right”. This ‘right’ depends on how long you expect to be digging and the size of the mine.
But South Africa was also one of the only countries in the world where it was illegal to be in possession of unwrought precious metal without the right authorisation.
But until the country thoroughly deals with unemployment and illegal immigrants, Zama Zamas will forever be trying their luck underground.