George Harrison Park in Johannesburg, South Africa is a crumbling national heritage site marking the site of the country’s first gold mining license.

We were formed to keep an eye on the companies that existed under apartheid and remain today, to make sure they are behaving responsibly. Often, they aren’t.”
David van Wyk

Rusting metal clouds and rainbows hang over the entrance. Next to a plaque chronicling the rise of gold mining in South Africa, the Johannesburg police have placed a large sign: “THIS PARK IS CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. ENTRANCE IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.” David van Wyk paid it no mind and walked into the park.

“The police only put this sign here when we started doing our research on the small-scale survival miners here,” he said. “It isn’t meant to keep the miners out. It is meant to keep us out.” Van Wyk is Lead Researcher at Bench Marks Foundation, a South Africa-based NGO focused on corporate social responsibility and ethical investment. “We were formed to keep an eye on the companies that existed under apartheid and remain today, to make sure they are behaving responsibly. Often, they aren’t.”

The mining industry flourished under apartheid, with mining conglomerates taking advantage of cheap black labor and minimal safety standards. South Africa became an economic powerhouse. In the 1970’s, South Africa was the world’s top producer of gold. But mineral reserves were depleted much more quickly than expected, and the remaining ore sits deep underground, making extraction dangerous and costly. As a result, many of the major mining companies have left South Africa, leaving more than 6,000 abandoned mines in their wake.

“When these corporations abandoned the mines, they left behind thousands and thousands of mine workers, many of them immigrants without the means to return to their home countries,” Van Wyk said. With few other options, these workers set up shop in and around the abandoned mines and began mining illegally.

There are an estimated 30,000 illegal miners in South Africa. They’re called the “Zama Zamas,” a Zulu term meaning “those who try to get something from nothing.” True to their name, they undertake serious risks with few resources to earn a very small amount of money. “These guys aren’t making the real money from these operations,” David van Wyk said. “The criminal syndicates that prey on them are. And the biggest of these criminal syndicates are the South African police.”

David van Wyk at George Harrison Park

There are an estimated 30,000 illegal miners in South Africa. They’re called the “Zama Zamas,” a Zulu term meaning “those who try to get something from nothing.”

Sinkhole in Sol Plaatje

Those Who Try to Get Something From Nothing

Inside George Harrison Park, the entrance to an abandoned gold mine on site remained open and accessible.

A steep embankment leads to an underground tunnel, pitch black with the exception of a small beam of light visible within the void. Van Wyk called out, and moments later, Mqondisi Ndlovu, a 19 yearold illegal miner from Zimbabwe, crawled out of the tunnel.

“I am on my way underground,” he said in his native Zulu. He agreed to answer a few questions before continuing his journey. “I’m scared sometimes. Sometimes, on the way down, you pass rocks, and you think they are stable. But then when you are returning, you see that those same rocks have fallen. And you think about how close you came to being crushed.” Ndlovu’s fear is well-founded. Every year, dozens of illegal miners die when tunnels collapse.

Between 2012 and 2015, at least 312 miners died, but the fatalities are believed to be under-reported by the Zama Zamas, who often do not trust local authorities.

Ndlovu, like the 5 other Zama Zamas interviewed for this piece, said he routinely experiences harassment, threats, and extortion at the hands of the police and the criminal syndicates.

Ndlovu said he planned to spend 24 hours underground. He fashioned strips of burlap sacks into makeshift protection for his arms, legs, and groin. A cheap headlamp strapped to his hat and an empty backpack he uses to transport the rocks he’s able to extract from the mine were the only provisions he took with him. When he comes back above ground, he plans to take his rocks to a nearby processing station.

Turning Stone to Gold

In Braam Fischerville Township, a few kilometers from the nearest mine in Soweto, South Johannesburg, dozens of Zama Zamas set up a gold processing station.

Witness Amlambo, a 29 year-old from Zimbabwe, said what he and the other Zama Zamas are doing is necessary for them to survive. “This isn’t legal, and I can’t do this for long. There are so many risks,” he said. “But for the moment, it is the only way I can put food on the table for my kids, or pay rent. There are no jobs here.” Amlambo has four children. He said he would never let them become illegal miners.

Amlambo took TIJ through the process of extracting gold from ore at each station, starting with a group of women and children breaking and grinding extracted rocks into a powder. “Once the stones are broken into particles, we take the particles to be washed,” he said.

At the next station, men mixed the rock particles with water and spread the muddy mixture onto large platforms covered with towels. Amlambo grabbed a towel and put it in a plastic bucket filled with water. “Now we add the mercury. The mercury attracts the gold,” he said. He poured a vial of liquid mercury into the bucket and mixed it with his bare hand. Finally, he filtered the liquid through a towel before shaking his head and dropping the towel. “There is no gold here. But if there had been gold here, I would take it to be melted so that I can sell it.”

Zama Zama Witness Amlambo in Braam Fischerville township

The men came with guns, and told us we worked for them now. We were underground for three days. Then they took our stones and left us.” Witness Amlambo

It’s worth noting that mercury, a toxic heavy metal, is not available for public purchase in South Africa. But, according to David van Wyk, a member of one of the criminal syndicates is a chemist and supplies it to the Zama Zamas.

Zama Zamas processing gold in Braam Fischerville township
A female Zama Zama breaks rocks in Braam Fischerville township

Like the Mafia

Rejoice Kumalo*, a 33 year-old mother of two, has been breaking rocks as a Zama Zama for more than a decade.

When she started, gold was much more plentiful. “We used to make enough to send money back to our mothers in Zimbabwe,” she said. “Now, we can barely pay for ourselves. And we are never safe doing this.”

Kumalo pointed at two men standing near the perimeter of the processing station. “When we see people we don’t recognize, we are scared right away,” she said. “We assume they are going to rob us. All the time, men come with guns. They tell us to lie down and take everything we have. Or the police come and take everything. On very bad days, the thugs and the police both come.” The men began walking away from the site, and Kumalo laughed and said she felt relieved.

David van Wyk said that Bench Marks has received multiple reports of police raiding Zama Zama outposts immediately before criminal syndicates come, indicating a relationship between the two. “South Africa has a serious gang problem. This is a very gang-ridden country. And these syndicates operate like the mafia,” he said. “They extort rent from these guys, or force them to only deal with a particular syndicate when selling their gold. And if they refuse, they might get killed.”

The criminal syndicates are notoriously violent. Between 2013 and 2017, turf wars between various syndicates resulted in the murders of more than 200 Zama Zamas. In 2017, a criminal syndicate murdered 14 Zama Zamas on a single day.

The Directorate from Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI), a South African government organization formed to combat organized crime and corruption in the country, found that criminal syndicates involved in illegal mining have been linked to human trafficking, arms smuggling, and money laundering. The DPCI has identified collusion between South African police officers and the criminal syndicates, as well.

Between 2013 and 2017, turf wars between various syndicates resulted in the murders of more than 200 Zama Zamas. In 2017, a criminal syndicate murdered 14 Zama Zamas on a single day.

Sinkhole in Sol Plaatje
Gold visible in sinkhole tunnel in Sol Plaatje

Watchdog organization ENACT says that the areas engaged in illegal mining in South Africa are as violent and dangerous as those in countries with active warzones, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rejoice Kumalo said sometimes, the criminal syndicates send men underground to terrorize the Zama Zamas. “They just force the miners to work for them. They don’t even give them food or water. They work them until they collapse, the thugs take their stones, and they leave the miners underground to die.”

Witness Amlambo said he experienced such an attack the last time he went underground. “The men came with guns, and told us we worked for them now. We were underground for three days. Then they took our stones and left us,” he said.

Watchdog organization ENACT says that the areas engaged in illegal mining in South Africa are as violent and dangerous as those in countries with active warzones, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When asked if the assault would deter him from continuing to go underground to mine, Amlambo shook his head. “I will go back underground today. My kids have to eat. There are no jobs. What choice do I have?”

“It is very difficult for the Zama Zamas to break free from the stranglehold of the syndicates,” David van Wyk said. Bench Marks Foundation has proposed the formation of a central buying agency owned and controlled by the government to allow the Zama Zamas to sell their gold at one point, thus eliminating the syndicates. Van Wyk said the government has seemed receptive, but real progress has yet to be made.

It is very difficult for the Zama Zamas to break free from the stranglehold of the syndicates”. David van Wyk

Uranium Playgrounds

“When the Zama Zamas go underground, there is no ventilation.

It’s incredibly dusty, and so they are breathing this dust constantly, and the dust contains uranium, arsenic, other heavy metals…so it’s very bad for their lungs,” David van Wyk said. “But the health risks extend far beyond the Zama Zamas themselves, into the communities near the abandoned mines and waste dumps.”

Bench Marks Foundation undertook a threeyear study documenting health in communities near abandoned mines and waste dumps in northern and eastern Soweto, Johannesburg.

Massive mounds of the heavily-irradiated mine waste dust, known as “tailings,” are visible near virtually every mine. “The wind blows, and it blows this dust all over the communities,” Van Wyk said. “So you have the people in these communities getting the same industrial diseases as the miners.”

Bench Marks documented children using the dump sites as playgrounds, playing ball and biking on the irradiated mounds. More horrifying still, the waste is often mistaken for sand and mixed with concrete used to build homes.

Geiger counter readings taken in the course of the Bench Marks study showed radiation levels more than thirty times normal background radiation in mining-adjacent communities as a result of the heavy concentration of uranium. Over time, uranium breaks down into radon gas, which enters area homes through soil and groundwater. Radon gas is second only to smoking as the leading cause of lung cancer. The Bench Marks study found instances of cancer and respiratory diseases to be 2-4 times higher in the mineadjacent communities than in other communities in Johannesburg.

In one of the communities included in the Bench Marks study, Snake Park, there is a child with cerebral palsy on almost every street. Respiratory problems, eye problems, and eczema are extremely common. Snake Park resident Tiny Dlamini became an activist after years of watching her family and neighbors battle illness after illness. “These mines are polluting our food, our soil. Our children are dying. The government isn’t doing anything to stop it,” she said.

Tiny Dlamini in Sol Plaatje informal settlement

These mines are polluting our food, our soil. Our children are dying. The government isn’t doing anything to stop it.” Tiny Dlamini

Sol Plaatje informal settlement

Dlamini also advocates for the rights of the Zama Zamas, and is greeted warmly when visiting their worksites and settlements.

In Sol Plaatje, an informal settlement of predominantly Zama Zamas and their families in Roodeport, Dlamini pointed out a number of carpets spread on the ground outside. “Don’t walk on the carpets,” she said. “They’re all there to cover the sinkholes.”

Mining has made much of South Africa susceptible to sinkholes, leading to frequent road closures and residential evacuations. In Sol Plaatje, Zama Zamas have made use of the sinkholes that have appeared in their community, using them as passageways to access the nearby mines.

The residents of Sol Plaatje, like most informal settlement dwellers in South Africa, live in shacks made of scrap metal and tarps. There is no electricity and no running water. Because of the proximity to illegal mining, the informal settlement is plagued by violence. “We don’t go out after 7pm,” one schoolgirl said. “We’re scared of getting shot or raped if we do.”

David van Wyk believes South Africa’s history of apartheid informs the country’s present state. “Black people are still predominantly in townships and informal settlements, and white people are in the suburbs,” he said. “If we look at access to medical care and education, we find that the best schools and hospitals are in the suburbs.”

Unsurprisingly, the mines and irradiated waste dumps are exclusively found in poor, black neighborhoods in Johannesburg.

“The spatial arrangements that existed under apartheid are still very much in place today,” Van Wyk said. “They must be addressed if we want this country to stabilize and become sustainable.”

Lindsey Snell
Lindsey Snell

Lindsey Snell is a print and video journalist specializing in conflict and humanitarian crises. She has produced documentary-style videos for MSNBC, VICE, Vocativ, ABC News, Ozy, Yahoo News, and Discovery Digital Networks. Her print work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, al Araby and others. One of her pieces, on Aleppo schools hit by airstrikes, won an Edward R. Murrow award in 2016.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed

Subscribe

Subscribe now to get updates from us directly in your inbox every month!

Take Action

Your anonymous tip could be the beginning of a revelatory investigation. Help our journalists make a change, expose tyranny and serve the public interest. Truth in Journalism is our motto, and your voice matters.