Illegal Mining in South Africa


Illegal mining is said to be an increasing problem in South Africa, especially in the gold mining areas. These miners are locally known as zama zamas which loosely translates as Try Your Luck or Take a Chance which in this case means risking your life to earn enough for the miner and his dependents to live on, given the lack of social security support in South Africa or in the neighbouring countries from which many of them come. The Witwatersrand mining belt which extends over a stretch of land with Johannesburg at its centre is said to have about 16,000km of underground passageways. Even though roughly half are now flooded  (with the rising acidic waters themselves posing a threat) this still allows a whole industry to flourish underground. In many cases old workings can be accessed from entrances which have not been sealed. The zama zamas may stay underground for months at a time with large stocks of supplies and equipment.

Although illegal mining in currently operating mines is increasing, most zama zamas, of whom there are said to be about 15,000 in South Africa, operate in abandoned mine workings. By the nature of these hidden undertakings rival gangs vie for the richest territory, with gun battles waged underground. Mine Rescue Services, which is an organisation with some 900 volunteers and funded by the mining houses, on one occasion found 10 bodies, all shot, and on another seven men beaten to death. In many cases the men may be trapped by falling rocks, especially when they excavate the high gold content pillars which were left to support the workings. In another instance some 200 members of one gang were trapped because a rival gang blocked the entrances, with a death toll that was never satisfactorily established. Mine Rescue Services recovered three bodies in 2014, 22 in 2015 and 24 in 2016 to date but reckon that this probably only represents 10% of the total. In many cases it is not safe to enter the workings to recover bodies and in other cases the zama zamas quietly dispose of the bodies. The zama zamas themselves frequently risk their lives to rescue fellow miners who are trapped or to recover bodies, as being important for the deceased’s family. This has happened in my own Benoni (part of the gold belt) area against the advice of rescuers and police. However the rewards can be high. When the Durban Deep mine (misleadingly just outside Johannesburg and recalled in Elton John’s Durban Deep*)  ceased production in 2001 an estimated 12,000 oz of gold remained, no small amount at over $1300/oz.

The mining of old workings generally does not constitute a direct financial loss to the former mine or the state. The total revenue from all illegal sources has been estimated to be as high as $1.3 billion, but the share of this coming from operating mines is increasing, with corresponding increased losses. The modus operandi in these instances is quite different to that in abandoned workings. One method is to rent an employee’s access card and once in food and drink may be smuggled in by genuine employees. A typical scenario is that when the day shift has inserted dynamite in drilled holes at the end of their shift the illegal employees will hide and soon after the blasting is completed will emerge and remove as much debris as possible before the night shift comes on. Because the gold content is only a few grams per ton the material must be reduced to volumes which can be smuggled out. The method employed here or on the surface at abandoned mines is that employed in the early days of gold mining in the area, namely separating out the gold using water and mercury to make pea sized amalgam balls which can be smuggled out.


The risks taken by the zama zamas is not confined to rock falls and gang warfare and working and living in stifling conditions close to 40°C. Simply getting to the workings can be hazardous. They have to access old workings which are often hundreds of metres below ground level and the access tunnels can be restricted. Cameras lowered down shafts have identified various ways of descending to the necessary depths. In one case it was by a rope ladder which had nine men on it when it snapped and dropped them to the bottom of a shaft 1500 metres down. In another case men were picked up sliding down the shaft steel work.


Mine Rescue Services believes the problem is spiralling out of control and suggests a number of measures which should be taken, including more effective policing of South Africa’s borders to reduce the number of illegal immigrants, breaking the syndicates dealing in the minerals, more effective closure of old workings and a harder line on those involved – in one case zama zamas paid a $4 admission of guilt fine and were back at the workings before the police had finished the initial exercise.

Sources: Daily Maverick;;;; Bloomberg;; Business Day

* Going down down down down down
Going down in Durban Deep
Going down down down down down
There’s no mercy in my sleep
I just hear that drill and hammer
I feel the killing heat
Going two miles down to the heart
Of Durban Deep


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