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Illegal migrant miners risk lives for riches

A worker in a coal mine belonging to Maamba Collieries, the largest coal producer in Zambia, 2 March 2007. The workforce has not been paid in months as the company faces serious financial problems since privatisation. Mining analyst Thom Kamwendo told loc Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Mohau Raphoka left his village, about 50km outside Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, with high hopes of striking it rich in South Africa. “I was so unlucky; I should be driving a flashy car by now,” he told IRIN, shortly after being deported from Welkom, a mining town in South Africa’s Free State Province.

Basotho men have been migrating to neighbouring South Africa to work in its mines since the 1950s, but in the last decade many have been retrenched as mining companies have closed down risky or unprofitable operations. Raphoka was among thousands, pushed by high levels of poverty and unemployment in Lesotho, to return to the abandoned mineshafts and take his chances as a `zama-zama’ (local term for an illegal miner).

The high price of gold in recent years has seen the proliferation of illegal mining activities, especially in Free State and Gauteng provinces, costing the South African economy an estimated R5 billion (US$607 million) a year, according to Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Several thousand `zama-zamas’ are thought to be below ground at any one time, often mingling with legally employed mineworkers in order to gain access to abandoned sections of active mines, and to smuggle food and supplies in and gold out.

Mokuena* has been working in the Free State’s abandoned mines for more than six years. Despite being arrested and deported several times, he has always been lured back by the possibility of earning enough money to secure a future for him and his family. A `zama-zama’ can make between R200,000 ($28,571) and R400,000 ($57,142) from one stint of up to six months underground, a small fortune for the average Basotho.

“I have just been released from prison in Welkom,” Mokuena told IRIN from Maseru. “I was arrested last year while I was underground, but I still want to go back and afterwards I will come and settle in my village.”

Like most poor migrant workers, Mokuena was recruited into the illegal mining business by a syndicate. He described his employers as wealthy Zimbabwean gold dealers. “They are the ones who have been paying for my `entry fee’ into the mine, for my food while underground and also for my rent when I am outside,” he said, explaining that the cost of bribing guards at mine gates or paying a legally employed mineworker to use their access card had risen steeply in recent years with one swipe of an access card now costing at least R5,000 (US$714).

Under ground for months

Given the high cost of bribes and the increasingly stringent security measures that have been put in place by mining companies, once they have gained entry to the mines many illegal miners stay below ground for months at a time. Working in their underwear due to the intense heat underground, the men sleep in the shafts and send the ore they excavate to the surface using a labyrinth of channels. “We spend as much time underground as we can so that when we go out, we have made enough money to last us for years,” said Mokuena.

''We spend as much time underground as we can so that when we go out, we have made enough money to last us for years''
But the possibility of high returns comes with high risks. In March, 22 illegal miners were killed by underground rock fall in an abandoned gold mine on Gauteng’s East Rand and in May another 20 were trapped and presumed dead after a tunnel collapsed in a Northern Cape diamond mine. In 2009, over 80 `zama-zamas’ were killed from inhaling poisonous gases caused by a fire that broke out in an abandoned area of a mine in Welkom.

About half of the men were Basotho, many of them from the same village in Thaba-Tseka, an impoverished mountainous district of Lesotho that contributes many illegal mineworkers. They are known for building large brick houses and buying 4X4 vehicles upon their return, convincing others in their community to leave for South Africa in search of similar riches.

Fights between rival groups of illegal miners for control of abandoned mines have also claimed lives. Raphoka said rival gangs with origins in Lesotho were killing each other on a daily basis in Welkom and disposing of the bodies down deep mine shafts. “No wonder some people are missing and they will never be found,” he said.


According to Mokuena, one of the greatest dangers for illegal miners is the shortage of food underground. “I have seen some of my friends dying from starvation with R20,000 (US$2857) in their wallets,” he said. “A significant portion of our money goes towards food. A loaf of bread that normally costs R8 ($1.14) costs a minimum of R100 ($14) underground. The legally employed workers have made a killing from our misery.”

Moipone*, who is legally employed by a mine in Welkom, said she made a minimum of R1,000 ($142) a day selling food to the `zama-zamas’, enabling her to save her entire monthly salary. “The `zama-zamas’ fight a lot for food. Once you bring food to one of them, he wants to own you and he fights those who want to buy food from you,” she said.

Some mines have attempted to curb this lifeline to the illegal miners by banning their employees from taking food underground. “We want to starve the `zama-zamas’ so that they come out of their hiding holes. They are a menace to the welfare of our workers,” said Masilo*, a union organizer for the National Union of Mineworkers at a gold mine near Odendaalsrus, in the Free State.

Read more
 SOUTH AFRICA: More deaths feared in illegal mining boom
 LESOTHO: Ex-mineworkers search for new livelihoods
 LESOTHO-SOUTH AFRICA: Cross-border health crisis hits mineworkers 
 SOUTH AFRICA: Glimmer of justice for sick gold miners
Occasionally, the “bosses” arrange for a sealed container of food to be lowered underground under the pretext of moving mining explosives, but such containers are often intercepted by the mining guards. Mokuena and Raphoka said the illegal miners sometimes resort to making holes in the large pipes that transfer gases out of the mines so that food can be lowered down undetected but that this practice had resulted in gas leaks and explosions that have claimed many lives.

Lamps and batteries are also scarce but vital commodities underground. “It’s so dark down there, if your lamp has run out of power or batteries - stay where you are, don’t attempt to move because its pitch black. You will walk onto loose stones that are razor-sharp and you will cause a fatal rock fall,” said Mokuena, adding that the illegal miners form search parties to look for missing colleagues, but that many are found dead after weeks of searching.

Despite all the dangers, Mokuena still wants to go back. “I am now experienced, I have learned a lot from my mistakes and I will no longer be arrested. I want to build a nice house for my wife and buy a nice car,” he told IRIN.

Raphoka is undecided; his father has just passed away and the family is waiting for the elder son of the family to return so that the burial can take place. But his brother is also a `zama-zama’ and will likely only come to the surface after several weeks.

*not a real name


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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