Mail & Guardian
Zama-zamas take their chances
They work long and hard deep in the earth. It is a life on the edge. But there are plans to make things easier, writes
He moves swiftly through the damp darkness of the abandoned mine shaft, expertly handling a wheelbarrow. His body is half bent to avoid hitting the lowhanging rock above. The torch on his forehead, held on by an elastic band around his head, is our only source of light. We are fast disappearing into the earth.
I’m following a young man, one of dozens of informal miners, known popularly as zama-zamas, down a coal mine. The air is cold and thin. The ground underneath is uneven and slippery.
The wheelbarrow occasionally hits potholes filled with water, causing a splash. But he doesn’t stop and appears to know the bumps and holes almost by heart.
Time is of the essence. He is heading for the work station to fill up the wheelbarrow with another load of coal. What he earns depends on the number of loads he makes during the shift, which may stretch up to 12 hours.
In his rush to meet his quota, he forgets I too depend on the torch on his forehead for light. He slows down briefly to check up on me when I land in a puddle of water. He offers a brief apology and laughs. We both laugh and move on.
“You see here,” he says in isiZulu, pointing me to a thick log of no more than 1.5m jammed between the ground and the rock surface above. It was put there just a few days before to stop the roof from crashing down. “It was unstable. Little rocks falling. That is a sign the earth could fall.”
A cold chill goes down my spine. We are at the mercy of the earth. The pillar is not very reassuring.
He laughs when I ask whether they’re not afraid of being buried alive. “If we fear being buried alive, we won’t eat,” he replies.
He stops again briefly and shines his light on a pillar made of rocks. This too was put there to stop the roof from caving in. The pillar looks unstable enough to be tipped over with the push of a finger.
We twist and turn through the tunnels for about 50m in the darkness. We can hear animated voices and the incessant thud of pickaxes.
“Aha. Now you can walk straight up,” he says, when we reach an open hall-like space.
Suddenly, before us, figures with lights beaming on their foreheads appear like apparitions. We turn down a wide passage and stop among the more than a dozen figures hard at work. Men and women.
In the flickering lights, I see women collecting coal into used mealie sacks. Men are attacking the walls with pickaxes to extract the coal. Others are gathering it up with shovels. Some men are sitting on a pile of coal, drinking from two-litre cooldrink bottles.
One of them sees my cameras. Word goes around. They reprimand my guide for bringing a person with cameras down the shaft. Loud protests ensue. The women are the loudest and fiercest. The message is clear. “Don’t shoot,” they shout loudly, almost angrily. Another man walks over to where we are standing. He wants to know why I