Illegal mining activities are a growing problem in South Africa, where resource mining makes up an important part of the national economy’s backbone thanks to the region’s fantastically rich deposits of minerals (notably, gold and diamonds). The public is becoming increasingly restless with the problem, calling for a greater response to stamp out the rogue gangs of illegal miners—the most prominent of which is known derisively as zama zamas.
To make matters worse, competing gangs are even attacking one another in a fight for supremacy over the illicit mining market.
Zama Zama Wars
It would appear that a bona fide “turf war” has broken out between rival groups of zama zamas, with most of the violence and illegal activities taking place in Guateng, a gold-rich province that includes the South African metropolis, Johannesburg, the country’s largest city. Established as a gold mining settlement, Guateng is filled with abandoned gold mines that the zama zamas are attempting to exploit (at their own peril). With the considerable level of wealth in Guateng, South Africa’s richest province, there is always room for enterprising groups of would-be prospectors to risk their lives rummaging around long-dormant, decommissioned mining operations.
This risky business has left many illegal miners dead, as bodies continue to surface in various remoter areas outside of Guateng’s urban sprawl. This is only from the dangers of trying to access offline mines, which are filled with toxic waste and are often structurally unstable.
At the same time, there have been at least 19 deaths among the zama zamas as a result of the turf wars. In one particularly raucous firefight earlier this month, a group of 500 illegal miners descended upon a band of its rivals numbering about 200, exchanging fire with rifles and shotguns. Although one might hope the groups would simply cannibalize one another (thus solving the problem on its own), this is not only wishful thinking but also ignores that guards at these mines are also frequently engaged in gun fights with the various zama zamas.
Recent Raid on Illicit Mining
On Tuesday, authorities in Johannesburg confirmed that police had found an encampment of zama zamas, arresting 28 of the illegal miners and recovering large amounts of equipment—electric generators and the pots, plates, bowls, and buckets used in such makeshift mining and refining practices—as well as rifles, pistols, and “thousands of liters of alcohol.” The group had been hiding out in a crude settlement where other criminal activity is known to take place.
South African citizens are fairly united in their stance against the zama zamas, not only for the violence and anarchy they cause, but because it’s clear that they are a drain on the national economy.
The dangerous activity and the need for greater security resources allocated to protecting gold mines isn’t helping the country’s biggest gold miners, who have already been hurting from weaker metal prices.