Crippling unemployment in South Africa has driven untold thousands of illegal miners to risk their lives underground in disused gold mines, and sometimes even active ones. Called zama zamas, most would rather be anyplace else than deep underground in dangerous, hand-dug mine shafts. But with an unemployment rate of over 26% and youth unemployment over 50%, there is little choice other than risking their lives in the depths of the earth.
The life of a zama zama is dangerous and often deadly. They break into old gold mines by digging tunnels barely wide enough to crawl through, carrying flashlights and hand tools to pick at tiny leftover veins of gold. It is not unusual for zama zamas to walk or crawl for hundreds of kilometers through the tunnels, and work as deep as 4km beneath the surface. They stay underground for days or weeks at a time before being driven back to the surface by lack of food or water. If they are lucky, they can earn 70 rand a day, the equivalent of $5 in US money. Many earn less.
Many years ago, most illegal gold miners worked alone or in small groups. These days, gangs and criminal organizations have moved in, taking control of the old mines by violence. In some cases, the zama zamas are forced into slave labor.
Once a gang has control over an abandoned mine, the zama zama mining there “only” have to face the dangers of rock falls, gas pockets and cave-ins. As they emerge from the mine, they must pay the guards stationed at the entrance a “toll” from the ore that they have hauled from the depths.
Gang wars often erupt hundreds of feet down in the earth. Fighting with guns, explosives, and picks, the larger groups will rob smaller groups and force them away from rich veins they may have discovered. The dominant gang in the mine will even threaten rescue workers and mine employees. This will sometimes lead rescue groups such as Mines Rescue Services to equip some zama zamas familiar with the mine with rescue equipment and a two-way radio to retrieve their comrades.
The violence in the mines also breaks along ethnic lines. Most of the zama zamas are illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland. They each tend to group together for mutual protection against the other factions, and also bands of robbers who descend into the dark to prey on the miners.
Lowest Rung In A Ladder Of Crime
The illegal gold trade in South Africa is a R6 billion ($428.5 million) a year industry, built on the backs of the destitute and desperate. It can be broken down into five tiers:
BOTTOM TIER: The bottom tier are the zama zamas. The not only dig the raw ore, but they or family members treat it by crushing and mixing it with mercury (with no protection).
2ND TIER: The second tier is comprised by the local buyers for the syndicate. They often feed and equip the zama zamas, and in contested areas, protect them from rival gangs. They usually have an area where they travel from camp to camp to buy gold.
3RD TIER: The regional syndicate bosses are the next rung in the ladder. They control the local buyers, and start the laundering process of the gold. Many have precious metal trading licenses to assist in moving the illegal gold into legal channels.
4TH TIER: The fourth tier is the national and international distributors. They use front companies to further obscure the origins of the gold originally mined by the zama zamas.
TOP TIER: The top tier of the syndicate is made up of international receivers and distributors, who use intermediate companies and international refiners to finally move the ill-gotten gold into the global marketplace.
Illegal gold mining in South Africa returned to the headlines recently when a large number of zama zamas were trapped in the old Langlaagte Mine outside Johannesburg. Crowds of zama zamas openly work the mine, the entrance of which is only 400m from a police station.
Authorities made a four-day sweep beginning August 26th to confiscate illegal mining equipment and close nine “unofficial” mine shafts. The zama zamas promptly returned to the area, and reopened a plugged entrance.
However, something went terribly wrong on September 7th. News quickly spread that there had been an accident, and that many illegal miners were trapped. Groups of zama zama descended the tunnels to find their trapped friends, but suffered casualties of their own, as they battled fires and toxic smoke. After several days, it was zama zamas, not official rescue teams, who found the last two bodies on the other side of a 1ft-wide hole in the tunnels.
The Department of Mineral Resources, the local police, and security details from gold mining companies Harmony Gold, Gold One, and Gold Fields have coordinated to provide 24 hour coverage of the mine until the entrance could be sealed again and deterrents such as razor wire-topped fences could be installed.
Not Just Gold
Gold mines are not the only companies battling swarms of zama zamas. Petra Diamonds is battling illegal diamond mining on a scale that threatens the existence of the company. Over 1000 zama zamas have swarmed the mine, grabbing the best gems out of the walls and selling them on the black market. By diluting the grade of the ore, the illegal miners are making those areas commercially unviable.
In perhaps one of the more audacious illegal mining operations, South African authorities raided an illegal open pit chrome mine in Limpopo. The gang ran when police approached, leaving behind 12 pieces of mining equipment that included dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators.
Solutions Rarer Than Diamonds
Public outcry over the Langlaagte Mine disaster has gotten the attention of the South African government. The Mineral Resources Committee in Parliament expressed shock and concern over the rampant level of illegal gold mining taking place. The Committee called for a coordinated approach between government, law enforcement, and the private sector to fight the problem.
Noting that not all illegal activity takes place in abandoned mines, the government also called on mining companies to step up security at their active operations. Calls for stricter laws against illegal mining may not be as effective as hoped, since roughly three quarters of zama zamas are illegal immigrants. Educational outreach emphasizing the dangers of illegal mining is also planned.
But, when you live in the ruins of a remote “company town” next to a deserted mine, the only job in the area is putting your life on the line for $5 a day.
The opinions and forecasts herein are provided solely for informational purposes, and should not be used or construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell any product.