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The zama zama wars and the miraculous MRS

What’s going on in the country’s abandoned mines will blow your mind. (Warning: graphic images)

It’s a story of desperation, tragedy, and sadness, that will make your skin crawl in parts, but also one that will leave you with incredible gratitude and admiration for the work being done by the teams from Mine Rescue Services.

There is a war being fought in South Africa’s abandoned mines.

In part, it has been made possible by the confluence of desperate and greedy men that begins with zama zama’s (illegal miners) being used as foot soldiers, and in some cases, cannon fodder, for crime syndicates that are estimated to be generating as much as R6 billion annually from the sale of gold and other minerals that are illegally mined from South Africa’s operating and abandoned mines.

While recent events at Langlaagte have brought their plight to the fore, the lesser known story is about the men – all volunteers – that go down to rescue them and recover the deceased.

Mine Rescue Services (MRS) traces its creation back to 1924 when Rand Mines established a Central Rescue Training Station. It exists as a non-profit private sector entity (with funding from its private sector members) to train volunteers for mine rescue work, and provide rescue and recovery services to the South African mining industry. “We believe we are one of the best of our type in the world,” says MRS CEO, Christo de Klerk.

Due to their outstanding reputation, MRS has assisted with training for companies operating on the continent, as well as places as far afield as China, Iran and Russia.

Notable MRS successes from “routine work” at SA’s operating mines:

list

The existence of MRS is partly supported by legislation. The Mines Health and Safety Act prescribes the number of active rescue teams that must be available at each operation based on how many people work underground. In addition to working with operating mines, MRS has a contract with the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) to assist with zama zama’s at abandoned mines as well. “Despite the nature of the work, I am never short of volunteers when the DMR calls us,” says De Klerk.

And it’s the DMR that has been calling ever more frequently as the situation with illegal miners spirals out of control. “It’s growing every day, both at closed mines and operating ones,” says De Klerk. He attributes part of the recent rise in the problem to the success of the DMR in blocking entry to shafts. Despite their best intentions, the miners have been known to blast through concrete seals, and in one case, removed two metres of overburden that authorities had placed on top of an entrance to hide it from prying eyes.

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Mine Rescuer climbs through broken ground on mission in abandoned mine.

But the interventions have upped the stakes considerably. “The activity of the zama zama’s have become much more concentrated, and they will sometimes kill each other when they fight over areas to mine,” says De Klerk.

(To see the brutality with which rival factions and gangs undertake turf wars underground, see the photo journey at the bottom of this article.)

Click here to listen to the interview with Christo de Klerk.

So MRS only gets involved at abandoned mines at the express request of the DMR. When they do arrive on site, MRS teams take a pointedly neutral stance when dealing with the miners and interacting with law enforcement agencies. In fact, De Klerk, who is one of the first on the scene, makes an effort to befriend the illegal miners. “We cannot operate without their assistance. We have to be guided by the illegal miners.”

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Mine Rescuer follows illegal miner down shaft to assist in recovering body of colleague.

This is because of the conditions MRS teams face as they enter mines. They have no plans or maps at their disposal. There is also no lighting, no artificial ventilation, and usually very poor structural support. “The illegal miners mine the pillars without installing new support. Sometimes its so tight the rescuers have to take off protective equipment to get to the areas where they are required,” says De Klerk. There is also the build up of deadly gasses like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide at levels of concentration that can kill a person almost immediately.

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Mine Rescuer crawls between rocks underground.

Then there are the zama zama’s underground. “Many times the workers carry on working when we go underground, and we even hear generators,” says De Klerk. The miners often spend weeks and months at a time there, taking food, tools, and explosives down with them.

From estimates made by the Chamber of Mines, a large proportion (70%) of the illegal miners are from neighbouring countries that include Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho.  So these men come to South Africa through porous borders, enter mines typically located in isolated and remote areas of the country, and undertake work in extremely dangerous circumstances and in environments they have had no prior experience working in.

In these cases, there are no expectant families that have knowledge of the mines they have entered and that can call authorities when they have been missing for prolonged periods. “I think the figures you see here are just the tip of the iceberg,” says De Klerk, with the implication that as much as 90% of incidents are not being brought to the attention of authorities, and are not being reported.

table

So on the one hand, you have men driven by desperation and greed that enter these mines. And on the other, a group of people who will voluntarily follow them into harms way to for the sole reason of trying to help them. That’s the miracle of the MRS.

MRS PHOTO JOURNEY – THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS

CAUTION: SENSITIVE VIEWERS ARE WARNED THAT THE FOLLOWING PICTURES ARE OF A DISTURBING AND GRAPHIC NATURE, BUT TELL A GRIM STORY OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SOUTH AFRICA’S DERELICT MINES

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Zama zama exits mine.

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Zama zama exits mine.

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Recovered copper cable from zama zama’s.

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Mine Rescuer follows illegal miner down shaft to assist in recovering body of colleague.

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Mine Rescuer crawls into unsupported tunnel to recover bodies of deceased miners.

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Wherever possible MRS place deceased miners into body bags before transporting to surface.

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The body of a dead miner is recovered to surface. A body bag was not used in order to be able to strap and hoist the body.

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Mine Rescue Services prepares rig for descent into shaft.

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Mine Rescue Services prepares rig for descent.

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Rescuer climbs down gap in collapsed shaft.

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Mine Rescuer from MRS negotiates flooded shaft (MRS)

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Mine Rescuer crawls between rocks underground.

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A dead miner crushed by a fall of ground. Miners were in conditions where there is not adequate support.

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A zama zama crushed to death by a fall of ground.

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Mine Rescue Services uses an inflatable device to help retrieve the body of a deceased miner killed by a fall of ground.

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Mine Rescuers prepare body for transport to surface.

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A dead miner killed under ground by a rival faction.

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A deceased miner killed by a rival faction underground.

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A deceased miner killed underground by a rival faction.

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A deceased miner killed underground.

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Mine Rescue Services responds to a call to recover dead miners.

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Illegal entrance to abandoned mine.

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Mine Rescue Services prepares rig for underground operation.

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A truly gruesome and tragic sight of ten miners executed by a rival faction. The parabellum used to kill them was recovered near the bodies.

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The bodies of the deceased miners are transported to surface by Mine Rescue Services and handed over to the police pathology unit.

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Explosives recovered underground by MRS.

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A fully equipped mine rescuer begins descent into shaft.

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Mine Rescuer crawls between supports on rescue mission.

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Mine Rescuer crawls down shaft.

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