Illegal gold rush in South Africa demands many lives

High unemployment is causing a new gold rush in South Africa. Gold has been mining there for centuries, but now more and more men are going underground illegally. Over the past few weeks there have been many deaths in abandoned mines, including falling rocks and bullets.

From a deep dark hole, you can see the lights of headlights looming. Men moan under the weight of large pockets of stones on their backs. Some have been down stairs for a week, others even two weeks. They hope that when they process the stones later, there will be gold in it.

The men work in one of South Africas oldest gold mines, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. On the surface, the mine corridor is large and open, but in the depths they have to struggle through caverns. โ€œWe sometimes go up to five hundred metres deep,โ€ says a miner who sweaty enters the corridor.

City of Gold

Johannesburg is nicknamed Egoli, the city of gold. The city was built only because gold was found in 1886. Many of the mines are no longer lucrative for commercial mining companies: they have already taken much of the gold out of the ground and much is now very deep, making it unprofitable to dig there.

But the thousands of unused and abandoned mines offer opportunities to what they call zama zama zamas in South Africa, illegal miners who go underground on their own, looking for leftovers of gold. Zama zama is Zulu for โ€œgrab a chanceโ€ or โ€œtry your luck.โ€

Elles van Gelder, correspondent Africa, visited the mines and saw the zama zamas search for the gold:

Illegal mining is an ancient phenomenon. But the high unemployment rate, partly due to a collapsed corona economy, numbers are increasing, say several experts working with the illegal miners.

A Zimbabwean miner, who prefers to remain anonymous, says sitting on a large rock near the mine entrance that he is only a few days above ground every month. He spends the rest of the time in the darkness. He only earns about 175 to 230 euros a month. โ€œIm afraid to do this job, but I dont have a choice. My wife and child have to eat.โ€

Street Corpses

It is dangerous. There are regular bodies near illegal mines, wrapped in plastic. These are miners who died underground, including falling rocks. โ€œWe dont dare to take them to the police because what we do is illegal,โ€ says Zimbabwean. โ€œIn this mine alone, we count as many as ten deaths a year.โ€

Although South Africans are also digging, many miners come from neighbouring countries, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique. Its mostly about undocumented migrants. How many zama zamas there are is hard to tell. A survey of six years ago is about 30,000. Among them are also men who worked for mining companies in the past but lost their jobs.

Its not just dead in the mine corridors, thats what happens above ground. Last week six more miners were shot and killed when a mining company, together with security guards and police officers, tried to put zama zamas off their premises. Some of the miners dig into active mines, or mines that still have an owner. Police say the miners started shooting. Theres an investigation into the case.

David van Wyk works at the Bench Marks Foundation, an organization that advocates, among other things, the rights of illegal miners. He says that it is often not the miners who use weapons, but a layer above them, which he calls syndicates: gangs that control the mines and buy the gold of the zama zamas. The miners would also have to pay them rent to dig into their corridors.

Theres almost daily shot

The illegal miners are at the bottom of the ladder, writes researcher Alan Martin of ENACT, an organization that investigates organized crime. Above the zama zamas is a web of illegal mining bosses buying the gold, and exporters who smuggle the gold out of the country. It is estimated that trade represents a commercial value of EUR 800 million and is one of the largest sources of illegal gold on the African continent.

Those syndicates fight for territory as well. They all want to control the corridors with the most gold left. That leads to violence in the mining town of West Village, a fifteen minute drive from Johannesburg. โ€œThis was a pretty quiet village,โ€ says Steven Ndlovu, who lives on the outskirts, near the mine corridors. โ€œBut now I dont dare let my kids live here anymore. Shooting is almost daily.โ€

The government is working on new rules that allow more miners to be licensed, as a kind of freelancers. Van Wyk thinks thats a good idea. โ€œEvery miner provides an average of eightrelatives,โ€ he says. โ€œSo youre talking about hundreds of thousands of people who depend on them for their food and paying tuition fees.โ€

But the licensing system would only apply to South Africans, not the many migrants. So they will keep going down.