Gold rush of the doomed

The des­per­ate risk their lives to feed their fam­i­lies

Saturday Star - - NEWS - SHEREE BEGA

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.

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