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Illegal Mining - the rise of the zama zama

In early March [Sunday 5 March, 2017] Gauteng police had discovered eight more bodies - suspected to be of illegal miners, in Benoni, Ekurhuleni, bringing the total death toll to 14.

Illegal mining has been in the news lately and featured more prominently since the operation was uncovered in Langlaagte, just west of Johannesburg.

With over 6 000 mines that have been abandoned by companies either closing down or moving their business elsewhere, the open shafts have attracted illegal miners chasing after alleged huge profits from the remaining deposits.

Some of the departing mining companies lament falling profits.

In this void enters the zama zamas - as illegal miners are colloquially known.

But descending into these gaping holes left unattended by the previously licensed mines is not safe business for the men who come from often around neighbouring countries such as Lesotho and Mozambique.

As had come to light during the Langlaagte incident, the men could go for months living underground, only resurfacing when their food supplies are depleted - or worse, at the death of one of their own.

It is not a business that grieves over the departed for endlessly long - they bring the dead up and swiftly go back underground, chasing after their dream.

It is said to be such a lucrative business those who operate here often recruit their family and friends from the villages back home.

David van Wyk of the Benchmark Foundations says there are 30 000 illegal miners in the country. Gauteng alone is home to multitudes.

Places like Welkom in the Free State have their influx of zama zamas as well.

This is becoming a dog-eat-dog world as gangs are emerging. Robberies and murders have been reported before as rival gangs fight over a share of the spoils.

The vanquished are often forced to work in slave-like conditions for their conquerors.

The solution does not lie in the simplistic act of closing the mines though the Benchmark Foundation is of the view that companies who leave disused shafts unclosed should bear the responsibility, and culpability.   .

As the story of the zama zamas gain traction, a whole literature on mining is finding its way to the shelves.

Jacana has books to cover a wide range of mining incidents in recent memory, not just the tale of the men digging for nuggets of gold at great cost to their lives.

The Marikana tragedy of 16 August 2012 has already triggered a handful of books, and documentaries.

On the day, the South African Police Service opened fire on a crowd of striking mineworkers at the Lonmin-owned platinum mine in Rustenburg, in the North West.

Books like Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer by Peter Alexander, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, Luke Sinwell and Bongani Xezwi, offer insight into the shootings - the biggest act of police brutality since the advent of democracy in 1994.

Reporting from the Frontline: Untold Stories from Marikana by Gia Nicolaides is another.

For those with an interest in mining, there’s a plethora of new books to consult, among them Broke & Broken: The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa by journalist duo Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki.

The two have also written on the Marikana massacre. Their other book We are Going to Kill Each Other Today: The Marikana Story is published by NB.

Jock McColloch has a book titled South Africa’s Gold Mine and the Politics of Silicosis.

The mines, after all, gave those who worked under their bellies, silicosis and, from their single-sex hostels arrangement, HIV/Aids as the men found love in the arms of the women near the mines, some of them working as prostitutes.

The wives back home are unwittingly drawn into this vicious cycle of infection.

Mining in the country, once legal, was a story of political domination. These days, the zama zamas are giving the industry a new face - of death.


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