Gold rush of the doomed
The desperate risk their lives to feed their families
ZEPHANIA Chauke rolls the nugget, inspecting it carefully. It’s tiny, barely bigger than a matchstick head, but it glints like a promise in his dusty hands. Later, he’ll mix it with mercury to reveal the precious gold it contains.
Chauke, who works as an informal gold miner in Roodepoort, wraps it in a piece of cloth and puts it away. Then he gets back to work, swilling the diggings hauled in plastic buckets from an old mine dam here in Durban Deep, in his hunt for gold.
He says he pockets little more than R70 a day for his efforts, of which he saves half.
“I keep the money to send to my son in Maputo for school. He is 6. I want him to have a better life and not to have to do what I have to do.”
With his tired, haunted eyes and chewed nails, Chauke looks much older than his 25 years. His clothes and shoes are tattered, his body covered with a yellow layer of dust, like the large group of men, mostly from Mozambique, who toil here alongside him from 6am every day.
A young gold buyer watches the group. They sell their meagre finds to him.
“If I don’t make money, they don’t make money,” the buyer says. “They know that. They are not being exploited because no one is forcing them.
“They can’t find jobs. Like me. This world of gold is dangerous,” he adds, scanning the area for threats. “I have to keep moving. I don’t even know who the people are at the top of this pyramid of gold smuggling. To them, I’m a nobody.”
Last month, Chauke was among the first to discover the body of a man, floating face-down in the dam. The man had been stabbed in the head. He has not been identified.
“It’s not good for someone to be killed like that,” Chauke shrugs. “But that is life here in Durban Deep. There’s too much danger.”
As in other parts of South Africa, illicit mining has exploded across the mining belt of Durban Deep.
Rosalind Morris, a professor of anthropology at the University of Columbia in New York, says those involved – most often migrants from Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and people from the impoverished Eastern Cape – are lured by the “fantasy” of gold and wealth.
They speak of the world of underground zama zamas – isiZulu for “take a chance” – as greener pastures, she says.
“They joke about how ridiculous it sounds, but they know it’s true for them. Why else would they take such risks? Most take minimal safety precautions and expose themselves to mercury constantly. They are living day to day.”
Morris has spent years documenting the lives of illegal miners along the Witwatersrand gold seam as a testimony to them.
“They’re in an all-or-nothing situation, therefore they have to take extreme risks. They speak of it as gambling – they know they may or may not make enough money to survive and that, long term, this is taking a huge toll on their bodies… but they have to perform this work to survive.
“They’re not taking what belongs to other people, therefore it’s not theft. They see it as a legitimate, fairly non-intrusive way to earn a living on the margins. What gold they are taking has been abandoned, left behind.”
These operations are occurring on an industrial scale, but without the specialised mining equipment.
“It’s highly organised – there are elaborate hierarchies and information transfer for allocating labour and function without the mechanical support. And that’s true underground as well.”
Morris has spent months here in the wastelands of Durban Deep, with Cora Bailey, the founder of Community Led Animal Welfare.
Bai l e y, t o o, has come to know many of the illegal miners well – the men who head into the dangerous labyrinth of tunnels and the women who, babies strapped to their backs, crush their gold-bearing rock.
“Many of these people wouldn’t choose to do this,” says Bailey.
“What you also have at Durban Deep is an industry surrounding this activity – the thousands of local people who rent them shacks, sell food and the bags they use for the gold dust.”
Bailey has “lost count” of the number of illegal miners who have been killed in gang wars, robberies and inter-ethnic rivalries. She is worried, too, about the shootings, rapes and robberies, ostensibly committed by illegal miners in the non-mining community.
“A few weeks ago, the locals here in Durban Deep called the illegal miners to a meeting to tell them to get rid of the criminals in their midst, which they have started to do. A suspected criminal was beaten to death and a miner was assaulted and thrown down a mine shaft... It’s anarchy.”
There is little faith in the police, says Bailey. “We see the corruption openly – the police taking money from the illegal miners. And they are paid by mining groups.”
Colonel Noxolo Kweza, the acting provincial head of corporate communication at the SAPS, says: “If anybody has information regarding police corruption and collusion, we’ll be willing to investigate… no one has submitted statements.”
Weekly operations are carried
They’re in an all-or-nothing situation… gambling
out in “which all known mine shafts are closed… illegal miners are arrested and their equipment is confiscated”.
There’s a sense the police know theirs is a losing battle. “Most of the violence and fighting takes place underground. It’s difficult to do anything about this… and most of the miners cannot give information,” says Kweza.
A year ago, the SA Human Rights Commission found there were between 8 000 and 30 000 illegal min- ers extracting gold and diamonds from unsafe disused and abandoned mines, with thousands more involved in hazardous gold-processing operations.
The scale of illegal mining “appears almost impossible to con- tain”. The Chamber of Mines says illegal mining is surging – it’s a R6 billion-a-year industry – due to the “troubled” socio-economic environment. “There are limited resources… to stem illegal artisanal mining, such as police, immigration, border controls and prosecuting authorities.”
Kgothatso Nhlengethwa, an associate lecturer at the School of Geosciences at Wits University, says cartels run zama zama mining.
“For any one miner you lose, another is willing to take his place. The real problem lies in finding the cartel kingpins. “The illegal mining of abandoned shafts on the West Rand is run by syndicates.
“This is not the same as a group of women in Kuruman mining tiger’s eye. Both are a form of artisanal mining, but one is invasive and the other community-based. One is criminal and the other informal.”
Back in Durban Deep Nqobani Ndebele, a Zimbabwean, is preparing to go underground at Durban Deep for several days.
“I don’t feel safe,” he says. “I have to pay people R40 to be my security while I’m underground. People are killing each other – there are bodies underground. I lost my job in a scrapyard in Germiston. There’s nothing else I can do.”
Morris says miners like Ndebele live in an extralegal world.
“It’s not a criminal world, but it’s outside the law. In that world are gangs, organised crimes, a thuggery of an extremely violent sort.”
Communities like those in Durban Deep have no access to electricity, water or sanitation.
“In every way, these people have to live outside the world of the rule of law and… are forced to exercise their own forms of justice.
“But the vast majority of people I have interviewed are afraid of violence, they’re afraid of each other sometimes. They don’t have access to the state, to the norms and processes of lawfulness.
“Most people are just trying to make a living, to look after their children and their families. The vast majority of crimes are directed against them.”
The economic downturn has led to a surge in illegal mining, but there are limited resources to curb it.