The most dangerous job in the world

Try as they might, the government and trade unions are powerless to stop the tens of thousands of zama-zamas who descend each day into the network of discarded mine tunnels underneath Johannesburg, reckoned to run to 160 000 kilometres. That’s four times the circumference of the earth, and virtually impossible to police.

They descend at dawn and resurface at 6pm when the police change shifts. Some will stay underground for days, some for months. There is a supply network that feeds those underground with food, alcohol and batteries. Armed “security guards” protect the entrances to the underground tunnels, charging R50 or more to those who enter. Nothing in life is free. Even these abandoned mines have new landlords.

A few kilometres outside the Benoni CBD to the east of Johannesburg, the authorities made an effort to curtail illegal mining by collapsing some underground entrances. A few weeks later, the entrances were reopened and it was business as usual. There are hundreds of entrances dotted around Johannesburg, and they all belong to someone.

The mining houses long ago abandoned these mines as non-viable, but there is still sufficient gold in them to attract thousands of illegal miners every day. They enter without hard hats, harnesses and the other paraphernalia required to keep them safe. Mines spent hundreds of millions of rands on support infrastructure to prevent roof collapses and provide fresh, cool air. None of this happens in illegal mining.

Most zama-zamas chip away at the gold-bearing reefs with small picks, while the better resourced use explosives. They load the ore into small back-packs and make their way to the surface, dodging the police to get the ore to the above-ground “refineries” where the ore is crushed and the gold extracted from the concentrate using mercury. The mercury is burned off, leaving a small nugget of gold.

These illegal miners have their own equivalent of fishing stories – hard to prove, but amazing if they are. Three Zimbabweans working under Modder B mine are reported to have recovered 4.7kgs of gold in three days of work, worth about $200 000 at today’s gold prices. They apparently returned home, squandered the money and are now back underground at Modder B.

But the hardscrabble reality for most is far more sparse than this: the people working the illegal refineries above ground expect to make 0.5-1 gram a day, worth R420/g on the black market operating on the East Rand. Sometimes you hit a sweet spot, where the same amount of rock yields ten or 20 times this amount.

This has to be one of the most dangerous occupations on earth. Zama-zamas (“those who give it a go”) have a low life expectancy, a consequence of breathing toxic gas and underground dust, coupled with frequent roof collapses. Then there are the gang wars, loosely organised around ethnic alliances: the Zulus, the Mozambicans, the Sothos, and the Mashonas.

There are stories of one group holding another hostage underground until they handed over their haul of gold-bearing rock. Some say there are scores of skeletons buried underground in the vicinity of the Modder B prison near Benoni; victims of roof collapses or gang wars. The police cannot enter these tunnels because no-one will cover them for insurance. Once underground, you are at the mercy of the men who own this patch of Joburg real estate.

Then there are the above-ground wars. Police shot four illegal miners in Boksburg last November after receiving information that they were dealing in explosives. Many zama-zamas have taken up residence in the East Rand townships of Kingsway, Lindelane and Daveyton. Kingsway residents have complained of gun fights at night between rival gangs. It’s said you can hire a hitman for R2 000 in these parts.

Reuters reported that Sibanye made 797 arrests in 2017 linked to illegal mining at its Cooke operations and 1 383 overall. In June, it made more than 500 arrests, above the 443 arrests in 2016 as a whole. Last year, Sibanye announced that it was closing its Cooke mines, with a loss of more than 2 000 workers. The company spent R300 million on technology to improve security around entrance to its mines. The cost of protecting its mines from illegal mining clearly weighed heavily in the decision to close these mines. As many mining houses are now finding, there is a very real cost to the zama-zama phenomenon.

Then there is the human toll. Last year 82 miners lost their lives to accidents, but this does not count the many unreported deaths of illegal miners operating underground. Nor is the problem of illegal mining confined to abandoned mines. In 2009 more than 80 illegal miners died after inhaling poisonous gas at Harmony mine in the Free State. A few days later another 25 bodies were recovered in the same mine after a fire. Up to 3 000 illegal miners were able to infiltrate a disused part of the mine with the help of Harmony employees.

In an open field, about a kilometre from Kingsway, a dozen or more illegal refiners are crushing ore from the previous day when the police arrive to confiscate equipment. A woman complains that the police intend to sell the drums to make a bit of extra cash. The police load up a few rotating drums and move onto the next site, where another dozen or so refineries are in operation. The zama-zamas plead with the police to release their equipment, which they do.

Zama-zamas operating hand crushers. Source: Author

Most of these illegal miners are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. They rent rooms in Kingsway or Lindelane for R100 a month. They are among the most vulnerable in the country because many are here illegally. They have to pay off the cops, the mine security and whoever else threatens their livelihood. Constance, a trained nurse from Zimbabwe, operates one of the rotating drums because she has no other way to survive. She asks if I have a job for her. Shephard, also from Zimbabwe, operates a drum next to her and expects to make half a gram of gold for the day. That should net him about R210 once he sells it to one of the black market gold buyers operating on the East Rand.

Few of them have likely heard of Cooke mines and the 2 000 layoffs that happened there a few months ago. These are desperate times calling for desperate measures. For the zama-zamas, illegal mining is all that is available to them. However much the government or the trade unions want them eradicated, it just won’t happen.