Gold mining companies in Africa, many struggling to remain in business, are battling something worse than low prices. Whenever production at a mine is suspended due to economic concerns, thousands of illegal miners, known by the Zulu name “zama zama” (one who tries his luck) swarm into the area. Some of them are employees laid off when the mine closed, but most are illegal immigrants, desperate to make a living.
Their indiscriminate blasting and digging destroy the infrastructure of the mines. Mining equipment and facilities are stripped bare. In many cases, the buildings are partially demolished for use as building materials in the nearby mining town.
The damage is so extensive, that many mines may never be re-opened for commercial operations, thus condemning the surrounding communities to permanent destitution.
Who Are the Zama Zamas?
The vast majority of these zama zamas are illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe or Mozambique. When they arrive in South Africa, they find few jobs for undocumented aliens. The South African unemployment rate is 25%, and youth unemployment is twice that. This forces both immigrants and South Africans into underground criminal activity.
In an interview with a CNN reporter, illegal immigrant and illegal gold miner Blessing Ndlovu said “When I came to South Africa, I never thought I would have to do this to eat.” This is a common refrain among zama zamas who talk about their motivation — it beats starvation.
It is not a solitary existence. There can be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of zama zamas working the same mine, staying underground for weeks and even months at a time. The South African government puts the number of mothballed or abandoned mines at approximately 6,000. Estimates of the number of zama zamas range as high as 30,000. Individuals and groups often stay underground for weeks or even months at a time, buying food and water with gold dust.
It is estimated that the South African government spends $550 million a year to repair damage caused by zama zamas. The haphazard mining isn’t the only damage done to the gold mines. Power cables are stripped from the tunnels. The giant mining equipment is torn apart for copper and steel. Generators are destroyed for copper. Even vehicles in storage are stripped for parts and diesel fuel.
Many times, idle gold mines have security on-site, or have had their entrances plugged with concrete. In these situations, a hole is dug by hand beyond the mine’s perimeter in order to gain entry. These tunnels can cause damage to the structure of the mine before any illegal mining has occurred.
Violent, Brutal World of Darkness
Cave-ins and being killed by falling rocks are just some of the ways a zama zama can die. Careless use of explosives and pockets of “bad air” (from generator fumes or natural gas) can mean a quick death. Since they operate in secrecy, zama zamas could be trapped for days or weeks before a mine cave-in is noticed. They may never be found at all.
But an illegal miner’s worst fear is the armed gangs. Illegal gold mining has grown from ex-employees sneaking back into a closed mine to a nationwide operation run by criminal syndicates. Subterranean combat between rival gangs often involves machine guns and explosives. A gang that can’t wipe out the gang holding a mine may elect to blow the entrance to the mine, trapping them all inside. Shootouts on the surface between gangs can last for hours.
Gangs will move into a new area and literally enslave the zama zamas working there, or take a cut from any ore that a miner tries to leave with. Some gangs just go around to different illegal mining sites and wait at the tunnel entrance to rob anyone who comes out. There are gangs that will even tunnel into a disused part of an active, legal mine. There are reports that these gangs have even set boobytraps in tunnels to keep employees and security out of “their” part of the mine.
A Man On The Inside
The best situation a zama zama can hope for is infiltrating an active mine. Using a borrowed ID, or simply a company uniform, the illegal miner will blend in during a shift change and make his way into a disused side shaft. These people act with the assistance of mine employees, who steer them to good locations, and bring (or sell) food, water and mining tools to them. Sometimes the illegal miner is an employee who stays behind after his shift for a little moonlighting on the side.
The operations controlled by criminal gangs have too much firepower, and too little regard for life for the police to confront. The gangs are so heavily armed that police will often refuse to respond to gunfights until everyone is either dead or gone. The idea of going into strange tunnels to fight armed people who live there is not even contemplated.
An armed security guard at the entrance to the Grootvlei mine 30 km east of Johannesburg stayed in his armored SUV during a gunfight between rival gangs around an illegal mine entrance. “Bullets were flying. I called the police but they only came in the morning to pick up the bodies,” the security guard said, refusing to give his name. “Police are too afraid to come here.”
No Alternatives, No Hope
The major reason for illegal gold mining is the total lack of jobs in areas where gold mines have closed. Over the 20, 40, even 100 years that a mine is in operation, towns spring up nearby. These towns are totally dependent on the salaries of the mine workers. When a mine is closed, the entire economy stops. Men have to leave to find work elsewhere in order to feed their families. There are few openings for skilled mineworkers in an industry that is imploding.
It is little surprise that some of these workers decide to break into their former place of employment to make ends meet. They already know where the gold seams are, including the ones that were passed by as not being worth commercial extraction. Illegal mining in some places has almost replaced the income lost when the local mine shut down. The number of illegal gold miners is expected to equal that of legal miners in the near future.
The Chamber of Mines estimates that 5% of all gold mined in South Africa, totaling $2 billion, is done so illegally and smuggled out of the country. The South African government loses $500 million in taxes and export fees a year from this smuggled gold.
The South African Human Rights Commission has put forward the idea of reworking the nation’s mining laws to allow small scale “artisanal” gold mining. This would legally bring mining towns back from the brink of starvation, reduce the influence of criminal gangs, and recapture some of the lost tax revenue for the state.
Zimbabwe, of all places, is held up as an example of the right way to tackle illegal gold mining. A recent report noted that artisanal and small-scale gold mining provided 1 million jobs in a nation where the unemployment rate is 80%.
“In Zimbabwe, there is no more illegal mining. They have formalized small scale mining. And they don’t have any of the problems we are having,” said David van Wyk, lead researcher at Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit organization that monitors corporate social responsibility.
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