Illegal Gold Mining in South Africa: The Deafening Silence on the Lives and Deaths of the Zama Zama Miners

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In the last few weeks, a terrible tragedy has been unfolding right beneath the feet of Johannesburgers. It is estimated that 100 miners have been trapped underground. Their bodies are being recovered very slowly, one by one. To date 24 bodies have been recovered from a mine near Roodepoort and an unknown number from a mine near Benoni.

Nobody knows the actual number of men and women still trapped or dead underground because the work they do is considered illegal. So the authorities simply have no proper records of the numbers of people involved.

The depths of the tragedy was illustrated last week by a women reporting that she was happy that her 18 year old brother’s body had been found, but at the same time, she remains deeply anxious because he went underground with five other family members who had not surfaced, nor had their bodies been recovered. There is very little hope now that they will be found alive.

In 2010 when 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile, the incident and subsequent successful rescue of the miners who had been trapped underground for two months became an international event with big-name television networks dramatizing every moment of the delicate and daring rescue operation.

For the poor miners trapped in the mines of Johannesburg, there will be no such rescue, nor is the media’s attention likely to be diverted from the Pretoria High Court where the Pistorius case has become the object of their fascination.

Zama Zama’s (we are trying) are miners who operate outside the regulated system of gold mining and do so independently. Given the high levels of unemployment and poverty, hundreds of men descend into old and dangerous disused mines and spend weeks in dark and dangerous tunnels removing gold bearing ore that then gets refined and finds its way onto the formal market.

South African mines are notoriously unsafe with high levels of fatalities. This is partly attributed to the archaic methods of mining that have not changed over the last 150 years. Gold mining is carried out by thousands of semi and illiterate miners who use explosives to blast rocks into smaller pieces that are then carried to the surface where the gold is extracted. Small groups of Zama Zama miners basically use the same technique with very little by way of safety or communication technology at their disposal. So their level of danger is considerably higher in an already dangerous system.

However, some of the so-called illegal mining activity also takes place at operational and functional mines in the shadows and away from the scrutiny if mine management. In a 2007 report, the Institute for Security Studies estimated that 10% of all gold mined in South Africa is stolen each year. Government estimates the value of the gold theft business at R5.6bn a year. Some estimates indicate that the numbers of workers involved in these operations now equal the numbers of those employed formally on the mines.

Recently there have been reports of mining becoming increasingly violent with cases of shootings taking place above and below ground. Mine security personnel report that they feel powerless in the face of what seems to be a very organised activity.

In February reports emerged of miners being trapped below the surface on the West Rand when a rival group stole their gold and trapped them underground by blocking off their exit. About thirty miners were rescued, but they indicated that over a hundred were still trapped below them. Official rescue teams initially tried to reach the trapped miners but soon gave up stating the presence of dangerous underground gasses and unstable rock that prevented them from entering and mounting a rescue operation. The relatives and friends of the trapped miners then had no alternative but to step in and go down the mines to retrieve the bodies themselves.

Slowly, over days, reports emerged of bloated bodies with blackened faces being removed by teams made up of the family members of those trapped underground. This new rescue effort was launched days after the official rescue teams had left. A woman’s body has also been retrieved indicating that women also undertake this type of mining. The rescuers have neither protective gear nor proper equipment — just hammers and chisels, as they bring up bodies covered in blood and wrapped in plastic sacks used for packaging mealie-meal. In order to cope with the extreme conditions underground, the rescuers say that they drink fresh milk and have enlisted the services of a Sangoma (traditional healer) who prays above ground so that the dangerous gases and smoke from underground fires are dispersed and that they may find the bodies of their loved ones.

What is startling about all of this is that there is no national outcry or response from the authorities, mining companies or South Africans in general. Media reports of the deaths of Zama Zama miners are relegated to small news items in the inner sections of some local newspapers.

In 2012 when 34 miners were killed at Marikana, there was a huge response from all South Africans. Political parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Workers and Socialist Party were quick to take up the cause of the mineworkers’ families following their deaths at the hands of the police. The outcry resulted in a Commission of Inquiry being set up to examine the killings. No such thing has happened in the case of the incidents where the Zama Zama’s have been killed or remain trapped.

Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that these are poor black Zimbabwean immigrants who are not South Africans and therefore not important enough for political parties because it is an election year and the misery of poor people is an easy place to organise votes around only if they are South Africans.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and COSATU have also had a minimal response to the deaths of the Zama Zama miners and have not publicly campaigned to have the miners rescued.

At its congress last year where the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) resolved to focus its energies on rebuilding the labour movement, NUMSA recognised the need to connect with poor workers that have been abandoned by COSATU and its historically big mining affiliate, the NUM. The Congress realised that realignment is needed in the organising and recognition of who it should focus on if it wants to really represent the interests of the working class. Some of the Congress resolutions recognise that alongside fighting for decent work for already formally and informally organised workers, entrepreneurial workers who live in the shadows of formality in precarious jobs need to be recognised and organised if a better future is to be realised for all.

The government and the mining houses have long since abandoned the cause of poor workers and nothing can be expected of them. It is up to ordinary South Africans to take a stand and demand that the lives of poor immigrant miners receive attention so that they too can be protected by our Constitution, which covers all who work and live in this country, not only those that can vote.

This article was originally published at SACSIS (The South African Civil Society Information Service). Motala is executive director of CASE, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry.