The most dangerous job in the world

Tens of thousands of illegal miners scramble below ground each day, hoping to pull out half a gram of gold and get to it the surface without being robbed or fleeced.
Constance, a trained nurse from Zimbabwe, operates one of the rotating drums, hoping to extract a few grams of gold, as her only means to survive. Picture: Author

Try as they might, the government and trade unions are powerless to stop the tens of thousands of zama-zamas who descend each day into the network of discarded mine tunnels underneath Johannesburg, reckoned to run to 160 000 kilometres. That’s four times the circumference of the earth, and virtually impossible to police.

They descend at dawn and resurface at 6pm when the police change shifts. Some will stay underground for days, some for months. There is a supply network that feeds those underground with food, alcohol and batteries. Armed “security guards” protect the entrances to the underground tunnels, charging R50 or more to those who enter. Nothing in life is free. Even these abandoned mines have new landlords.

A few kilometres outside the Benoni CBD to the east of Johannesburg, the authorities made an effort to curtail illegal mining by collapsing some underground entrances. A few weeks later, the entrances were reopened and it was business as usual. There are hundreds of entrances dotted around Johannesburg, and they all belong to someone.

The mining houses long ago abandoned these mines as non-viable, but there is still sufficient gold in them to attract thousands of illegal miners every day. They enter without hard hats, harnesses and the other paraphernalia required to keep them safe. Mines spent hundreds of millions of rands on support infrastructure to prevent roof collapses and provide fresh, cool air. None of this happens in illegal mining.

Most zama-zamas chip away at the gold-bearing reefs with small picks, while the better resourced use explosives. They load the ore into small back-packs and make their way to the surface, dodging the police to get the ore to the above-ground “refineries” where the ore is crushed and the gold extracted from the concentrate using mercury. The mercury is burned off, leaving a small nugget of gold.

These illegal miners have their own equivalent of fishing stories – hard to prove, but amazing if they are. Three Zimbabweans working under Modder B mine are reported to have recovered 4.7kgs of gold in three days of work, worth about $200 000 at today’s gold prices. They apparently returned home, squandered the money and are now back underground at Modder B.

But the hardscrabble reality for most is far more sparse than this: the people working the illegal refineries above ground expect to make 0.5-1 gram a day, worth R420/g on the black market operating on the East Rand. Sometimes you hit a sweet spot, where the same amount of rock yields ten or 20 times this amount.

This has to be one of the most dangerous occupations on earth. Zama-zamas (“those who give it a go”) have a low life expectancy, a consequence of breathing toxic gas and underground dust, coupled with frequent roof collapses. Then there are the gang wars, loosely organised around ethnic alliances: the Zulus, the Mozambicans, the Sothos, and the Mashonas.

There are stories of one group holding another hostage underground until they handed over their haul of gold-bearing rock. Some say there are scores of skeletons buried underground in the vicinity of the Modder B prison near Benoni; victims of roof collapses or gang wars. The police cannot enter these tunnels because no-one will cover them for insurance. Once underground, you are at the mercy of the men who own this patch of Joburg real estate.

Then there are the above-ground wars. Police shot four illegal miners in Boksburg last November after receiving information that they were dealing in explosives. Many zama-zamas have taken up residence in the East Rand townships of Kingsway, Lindelane and Daveyton. Kingsway residents have complained of gun fights at night between rival gangs. It’s said you can hire a hitman for R2 000 in these parts.

Reuters reported that Sibanye made 797 arrests in 2017 linked to illegal mining at its Cooke operations and 1 383 overall. In June, it made more than 500 arrests, above the 443 arrests in 2016 as a whole. Last year, Sibanye announced that it was closing its Cooke mines, with a loss of more than 2 000 workers. The company spent R300 million on technology to improve security around entrance to its mines. The cost of protecting its mines from illegal mining clearly weighed heavily in the decision to close these mines. As many mining houses are now finding, there is a very real cost to the zama-zama phenomenon.

Then there is the human toll. Last year 82 miners lost their lives to accidents, but this does not count the many unreported deaths of illegal miners operating underground. Nor is the problem of illegal mining confined to abandoned mines. In 2009 more than 80 illegal miners died after inhaling poisonous gas at Harmony mine in the Free State. A few days later another 25 bodies were recovered in the same mine after a fire. Up to 3 000 illegal miners were able to infiltrate a disused part of the mine with the help of Harmony employees.

In an open field, about a kilometre from Kingsway, a dozen or more illegal refiners are crushing ore from the previous day when the police arrive to confiscate equipment. A woman complains that the police intend to sell the drums to make a bit of extra cash. The police load up a few rotating drums and move onto the next site, where another dozen or so refineries are in operation. The zama-zamas plead with the police to release their equipment, which they do.

Zama-zamas operating hand crushers. Source: Author

Most of these illegal miners are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. They rent rooms in Kingsway or Lindelane for R100 a month. They are among the most vulnerable in the country because many are here illegally. They have to pay off the cops, the mine security and whoever else threatens their livelihood. Constance, a trained nurse from Zimbabwe, operates one of the rotating drums because she has no other way to survive. She asks if I have a job for her. Shephard, also from Zimbabwe, operates a drum next to her and expects to make half a gram of gold for the day. That should net him about R210 once he sells it to one of the black market gold buyers operating on the East Rand.

Few of them have likely heard of Cooke mines and the 2 000 layoffs that happened there a few months ago. These are desperate times calling for desperate measures. For the zama-zamas, illegal mining is all that is available to them. However much the government or the trade unions want them eradicated, it just won’t happen.


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Being a farmer in South Africa is probably more hazardous especially as the regime is incites people to genocide. No body is urging anyone to kill the Zama Zama except possibly a rival Zama Zama. Be that what it may, when the water level rises to the surface in the Central Rand goldfield, most of this problem will disappear.

Agree each day I farm I watch my back, never had to do that. I carry a gun too.

?? Why are they here? Cos their own people turned on them in their home countries and made life unbearable. The African way. Look at how SASSA teals from the very people they are charged to look after.

‘Being a farmer in South Africa is probably more hazardous’…@Richardthe Great, do you live on a farm?

It amazes me how you can swing this whole article to just take a stab at the ANC/EFF. Since no one is urging the Zama Zama to kill them, who cares right? Let the water level rise and the problem ceases to exist?

Some of the comments on this article are ridiculous, ‘bugger off to where you came from’. I am sure that same logic is going to be used in a political play by the ANC/EFF, maybe you should consider joining them or better yet bugger off as well.

Actually, Think, the water level WILL rise and the problem WILL largely cease to exist. This is almost guaranteed. I cannot see the ANC regime spending money pumping the Central Rand basin to subsidise the illegal miners. It is just one of those things in life. C’est la vie mon ami. The current opportunity will be submerged sometime in the future.

No I don’t live on a farm but with 30000 farm murders and counting, I would assume the death toll it more than that of the Zama Zamas and would thus make the occupation more hazardous per 100000 participants. I would not live on a farm in SA.

The word ‘bugger’ has a sexual connotation and is offensive.

The difference is these are illegal activities whereas farming is legal. Now people dying is never good, but there are legal ways to work as well. I know SA’s unemployment is disastrously high, but it’s never an excuse for illegal activities.

isn’t it also the same illegals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and rest who pop up in the crime stats,…illegals a nice tool for this regime to have, do all the dirty work for free.

“They are among the most vulnerable in the country because many are here illegally. They have to pay off the cops, the mine security and whoever else threatens their livelihood”…Why are they still here?, Zim is open for business, great illegal gold mining opportunities available on the Mugabe claims, Time to go back “expropriate a Mugabe claim”,…don’t know what the problem is. Just GO, YOU CAN DO IT!

Exactly bugger off to where you came from.

as an ex goldmining employee the safety aspects of the zama-zama operations are horrifying, but what does one do in a country with such a high unemployment rate. scary

Every action of government leads to a reaction in the economy. The socialist policies of perpetual BEE, forced benefits to local communities, high tax rates, employment equity, nationalization of mineral rights and the corruption with mining licences caused a virtual implosion of the South African mining sector.

South Africa was a leader in the international mining industry. ANC policy turned that into a zama-zamas industry. The destruction of job opportunities together with the lack of investment created an opportunity for those who have got nothing to lose, to risk their lives scavenging for minerals.

This phenomena is slowly engulfing the whole economy. Can you imagine the turf-wars when land is appropriated without compensation? Title deeds will have no value and no meaning. There will be no way of knowing where the borders of the farm are. The new farmers will fight and kill one another over grazing rights. New farmers will basically live like zama-zamas and production will implode.

The ANC is basically turning a once prosperous country into backward rural tribal land. Maybe it is time for a regime change…

Amen! 🙂 Change is needed to move away from socialist policies.

In the distant past, SA was doing business mostly in the ‘formal’ manner. “Glad” to see SA is slowly moving back to the tried and tested ‘informal’ way of doing business.
“Los daai stupid trekker, laat ons die land ploeg met ‘n os, en hordes werkers” 😉

The most scary thought is, that 35,000 commercial farmers provides food for 55-million inhabitants in SA. Yet the majority have negative views/feelings towards the farmer…the consequences are even more scary. In starving Venezuela it’s called the “(Pres) Maduro-diet”.

When they do it for themselves they disregard all safety aspects, but if they do it for a commercial mining house, they demand safety of the highest standard. On the first cough they sue the mining house for silicosis.

Where is law enforcement – this is a situation where the country should have set up a unit specializing on this aspect a long time ago. They should have had these groups, including the big buyers infiltrated eons ago. There is somewhere where all that gold and precious stuff is going, and it is not to make these ‘pawns’ rich, they are there to ‘get a meal for the day’ and ‘make it back home’ if they ever will, but there are people higher up who are ‘coining it’, and those need be stopped, to slow down and or eliminate this phenonemon. You can arrest these folks all day if you want, but as long as there are people smuggling this gold into Mozambique and passing through SA ports as ‘import’ for ‘export’ gold with all relevant faked up documents for source of origin, to go to India and Dubai, you have a problem. Arrest thesse guys and get hold of the Kingpins.

Why is this even considered a ‘job’? This people are undertaking criminal activities, that violate specific laws that are also stated in the code. So, why is this a job? Should we perhaps add to the list ‘breaking and entering’, ‘hijacking’, ‘smash and graba’, pick-pocketing and bank robberies, as well as cash-in-transit to the list of dangerous ‘jobs’ that you have omitted to this list of wonderfully dangerous ‘jobs’ as well.

these minerals cant be extracted by traditional means profitably and should be done on a smaller scale where it becomes more profitable , theres an opportunity to support small and medium sized business by allowing this to continue but under regulation that benefits these people and protects the property rights of those on whose land they wont beat them, join them.

Wonder where OHASA are in all this matter – surely they have inspectors free to conduct their mandated duties

Writer, your obsession with zimbabweans is sickening, zimbabwean this, zimbabwean that, zimbabwean trained, zimbabwean squandered money. Does name dropping (zim), makes you feel better? Get a life man. These are people, small scale minors. What they do with their money its non of your concern. This narrative of tagging or the ills to foreign nationals must stop. Dako.

Who said being a cockroach wasn’t dangerous?

End of comments.



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