CAPE TOWN: With his armoured 4×4 parked at the entrance of an abandoned gold mine shaft in South Africa, the security guard armed with a gun and a bullet proof vest makes for a menacing sentry.
But he couldn’t do anything when five illegal miners were killed in September by gangs fighting to control the Grootvlei mine in Springs, a blue-collar town located 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Johannesburg.
“Bullets were flying. I called the police but they only came in the morning to pick up the bodies,” said the security guard, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Police are too afraid to come here.”
South Africa has approximately 6,000 mines that companies have been abandoned in the face of falling profits.
The mines attract thousands illegal miners known as zama zamas (Zulu for “those who try their luck”) who descend into the ageing shafts and wells, sometimes living for months underground digging for nuggets of gold.
There are between 8,000 and 30,000 illegal miners in the country, according to the South African Human Rights Commission, a national institution designed to protect human rights.
Illegal mining is dangerous work to begin with and today it is getting worse, with the emergence of armed gangs kidnapping rival miners and forcing them to work in slave-like conditions underground.
In September, about 20 people were killed in an outbreak of gang violence around Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa’s mining industry, known as the “City of Gold.”
“There is an increasing level of violence, gang war and intimidation by illegal miners,” said the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, the country’s mining industry employers’ organisation, in a report this year.
“Illegal mining activities and organised crime are interrelated. Illegal miners are often heavily armed, have explosives and set ambushes and body traps for employees, security and rival groups of illegal miners.”
The escalating violence is troubling surrounding communities.
“The kids who are four years old know the sound of the gun,” said Springs resident Samson Jerry Aphane, holding a spent bullet in his hand as proof of the deteriorating situation.
“They know they have to lie down.”
In an attempt to counter the mounting gang activity, South Africa’s police launched an illegal mining task force in September.
Still, the police are unable to tackle the problem directly, fearful of operating in the unfamiliar mines.
“Due to the informal nature of the trenches used by illegal miners, it is too dangerous for the law enforcement agencies to go underground,” admitted police spokesman Dlamini Lungelo.
Gangs “kidnap people underground and use them as their workforce,” said Sandile Nombeni, who works with non-profit Ekurhuleni Environmental Organisation.
Gangs take a cut for every 12-kilo (26-pound) bag of ground mined, significantly reducing a miner’s personal share.
“You need to provide them with a full plate of soil,” said an illegal miner from Zimbabwe, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal. “If you don’t do that, they can kill you.”
Some of the zama zamas, a muscular, sweaty group composed mainly of young men from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, extract the yellow nuggets in a makeshift factory in Springs.
It’s hard, noisy work: the illegal miners sift the dirt by rolling it in drums filled with hard metal balls.
One miner, called Reynold, told AFP that a gang had recently killed his close friend.
“But I am determined to go back underground for another two months,” said Reynold, who lives in the small shanty town of Randfontein, west of Johannesburg.
If he survives, he’ll bring home 420 rands ($30, 27 euros) for every gram of gold he discovers.
“Since there is no work, this is how many people get by,” said Nombeni, who is calling for the legalisation of the informal mining sector, which the Chamber of Mines of South Africa estimates represents 5 to 10 per cent of the country’s annual gold production.
“In Zimbabwe, there is no more illegal mining. They have formalised small scale mining. And they don’t have any of the problems we are having,” said David van Wyk, lead researcher at Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit organisation that monitors corporate social responsibility.
“If you look at the Netherlands you have far less problems associated with the sex trade there than you have in countries where it is illegal. We need to do something similar to that for small scale mining.”