Business Maverick, South Africa

Take a Chance: Welcome to the golden underground world of Zama-Zamas

By Greg Mills 5 July 2016

After 120 years of mining, a 16,000km labyrinth of underground passageways extends across the Witwatersrand belt. An estimated 350 illegal miners operate in the West Wits area at any one time, supporting perhaps 5,000 people in the nearby Sol Plaatje township or in the canvas, tin and wooden squatter settlements dotting the veld. By GREG MILLS.

James, 29, is from Maseru.

He works as an illegal miner, or zama-zama (literally those willing “to have a go”, “try your luck”, or “take a chance”), in the Durban Deep area, 20km south-west of the centre of Johannesburg. He is to be found with four of his countrymen standing ankle-deep in freezing water, washing diggings in a plastic bucket. In the background the occasional crack of high-velocity rifle fire justifies the “rifle-range” moniker.

Drawing water in buckets from an old mine dam, the solution flows through perforations in the bucket on to a ribbed carpet which picks up the dense gold-laden concentrate. Later this is milled before being mixed with mercury to pick up the gold content, and then heated with oxyacetylene torches to finally leave the prized yellow shine of pure gold.

Photo: A dense gold-laden concentrate. (Greg Mills)

James sells his bounty to a local dealer, for which he receives, he says, R300 a gram, less than half the international market rate. He and his friends make R50 each a day, he claims, for their labours, hardly enough to eat and pay the rent.

The zama-zamas can be found all the way down Main Reef Road. (Greg Mills)

The zama-zamas can be found all the way down Main Reef Road which runs east-to-west, just south of Johannesburg’s gold reef. Fashioned like a soup bowl, the northern lip of the reef appears through the dusty, brown winter veld in various outcrops before plunging down beyond economically mineable depths over 6 km before the bowl’s edge curves back up towards Klerksdorp to the west, Kroonstad in the south, and, to the north-east, Evander.

The Durban Deep area was mined actively until 2001 when, amid a failed merger with Johannesburg Consolidated Investments, the mill was shut and the shafts plugged, leaving an estimated 12-million ounces unmined. Now a new Australian-led venture, West Wits Mining, is endeavouring to reopen the mine, working with a property developer to construct “affordable” housing for 75,000 people on the prospecting area’s 4,000 ha, making inroads into the 800,000 housing backlog in Gauteng.

Photo: Circular Shaft Headgear, Durban Deep. (Greg Mills)

Photo by Greg Mills.

Durban Deep is just a few kilometres away from the farm Langlaagte, where the gold that was famously discovered in July 1886 created the rush that led to Johannesburg and underpinned much of South Africa’s industrial might. Over the next century South Africa produced 58,000 tonnes of gold from this area, nearly one-third of all the gold ever produced.

South Africa produced 144.5 tonnes of gold in 2015, valued at $6.6-billion. Zama-zamas produced another estimated eight tonnes, $400-million worth. They are at the bottom of the employment pile, an estimated three-quarters desperate illegal immigrants from Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, some veteran miners out of work, supporting as many as ten dependents. With South African unemployment touching 40%, it’s always going to be a struggle for migrants to find jobs.

And it’s hardly a bonanza; more the last – or only – chance saloon.

Photo: Bags of ore waiting for sale and processing. (Greg Mills)

Most zama-zamas work shallow portions of long abandoned mines such as Durban Deep, where they abseil and slither their passage down and up underground tunnels across Johannesburg to extract gold. In a mole-like existence, they chip away at seams with coal chisels and mallets, bringing their harvest up in sacks for processing at the sluices and backyard smelters.

After 120 years of mining, there is an estimated 16,000km labyrinth of underground passageways extending across the Witwatersrand belt, from Roodepoort in the west to Springs in the east, perhaps half of which is flooded. An estimated 350 illegal miners operate in the West Wits area at any one time, supporting perhaps 5,000 people in the nearby Sol Plaatje township or in the canvas, tin and wooden squatter settlements dotting the veld.

Photo: Sol Plaatje township. (Greg Mills)

Mine officials and security personnel estimate that overall there may now be as many as 15,000 zama-zamas, compared to 120,000 people employed in South Africa’s formal gold mines. In 2015 zama-zama deaths numbered at least 65. To put the risk into context, South African gold mines lost 33 workers in accidents in 2015. With the pillars supporting the mine roofs containing some of the richest unmined material, some zamas, literally, undermine themselves.

In a highly organised, syndicated system, with crime bosses at the top running the gangs and the, in the words of one Australian miner, “shit-kickers at the bottom”, many are murdered by rivals. In 2014 one gang trapped 200 zama-zamas by blocking the exits of an illegal mine. Untold numbers died, with no official consequences. Four years earlier, more than 100 “illegal miners” died in a single event in Welkom.

The bulk of illegally mined gold is from the zama-zamas operating in commercial mines. Sibanye, the Gauteng province’s largest employer after the state, arrests “between 30 to 40” such illegals each quarter. Entering through disused shafts or by using the entrance cards of legitimate miners, these zamas commandeer areas underground. They can operate for months at a time, fed by informal canteens and armed with explosives, home-made grenades and firearms to fend off any rivals or the authorities.

Other mines, such as those on South Africa’s platinum belt in the north-west of the country, suffer not only from illegal mining, but the theft of underground copper wiring. In the northernmost province of Limpopo, traditional tribal chiefs have ignored the government and are running chrome mines without official approvals in their territories.

There should be empathy with the plight of the individual zama-zama, slaving in tough, threatening conditions for meagre returns. But there are considerable costs beyond the loss of tax revenue and investor returns and confidence. The zamas are part of a shadowy network of ruthless criminality, with little or no concern for property, the environment, and the safety of others, all the while breeding and nourishing corruption within the public and private sectors alike.

Of course, South Africa is not alone. From Colombia to Zimbabwe, there are an estimated 25-million artisanal miners, defined as those effectively subsisting through mining rather than being employed by a mining company, and using rudimentary and dangerous techniques and technologies of extraction. A further estimated 150-million people in more than 50 developing countries are estimated to be indirectly reliant on the sector. Usually artisanal mining takes place in remote areas, largely free from government interference, environmental and other controls.

This is not the case in Johannesburg.

The rise of the zama-zamas reflects the decline of South Africa’s mining industry. In the late 1980s South Africa’s share of formal global mining overall was 40%, with employment peaking at 880,000, gold alone accounting for 540,000 jobs. By 2016, it had declined to under 5% and 473,000 jobs, even though it still accounted for 8% of GDP and more than half of South Africa’s merchandise exports.

A lack of investor confidence combined with a restive labour force and increasingly difficult and expensive deep ore extraction saw South Africa produce 87% less gold in January 2015 compared with the same month in 1980. Its gold output has fallen from first place in 2006 (when it mined 300 tonnes compared to its peak of 1,000 tonnes in 1970) to, 10 years later, seventh behind China, Australia, Russia, the US, Canada, and Peru.

This fall reflects a lack of investment and, behind that, investor confidence. By 2011, South Africa’s global share of greenfield mining projects was just 5%; Australia’s was by comparison 38%. Such a drop in investment is consistent with trends in other parts of Africa, and serves to undermine growth.

It does not have to be a sunset industry. A 2010 Citibank survey put South Africa as the world’s richest mining country in terms of non-oil reserves, worth an estimated $2.5-trillion at then current prices, more than Russia and Australia with about $1.6-trillion apiece. At the time of this report, experts estimated that with the right regulatory environment, South Africa could at least double coal, platinum, iron and manganese outputs within five years, adding 100,000 each to direct and indirect jobs.

But a new gold mine takes five years of investment of at least R2-billion to get past the feasibility phase. A further R20-30-billion is required, at today’s prices, to get to “medium depth”, to the reef itself, involving another 10 years of work. Only then does the mine start to recoup the capital investment and, ultimately, after another decade or more, return a profit.

Still, it does not even require major new investment to reap these dividends, rather just collaboration – improved trust – between business and government.

After the 1886 rush, individual gold claims were consolidated into larger companies like Durban Deep. Nicknamed the “Grand Old Lady”, the Durban Deep area produced more than $20-billion worth of gold, at one point employing 18,000 people. Now the area has returned into the lawless, contested operations of the zama-zamas.

Elton John once sang ‘Going down down down down down, Going down in Durban Deep’. It’s now sunk about as far as it can. In the bush is the last remaining headgear of the “Circular Shaft”, its heritage confirmed by the white Gothic “Durban Deep” sign above the cage which would carry the miners down its 1km depth, the surviving machinery fenced off and guarded to prevent the zamas going down inside or recycling the steel frame.

James’ plight tells a story about Lesotho’s development failings and those of South Africa’s foreign policy, which have left the mountain kingdom politically fractured and bereft of opportunity 50 years after its independence.

Further north, the reasons for the collapse of Durban Deep and the rise of the zama-zamas centre on the lack of confidence of investors that things in South Africa will turn around, questions about the rule of law and bureaucratic responsiveness to commercial concerns and needs, a lack of basic security, and the absence of a government vision that includes a future for mining.

Yet, Durban Deep’s Australian owners believe that, with security, a quick response on mining permits, and permissions on the housing development, they can “sterilise” the surface area and resuscitate the mine. They calculate there is 500,000 ounces available near the surface, to be excavated and back-filled, funding the next stage which will see the mining of another 1.5-million ounces above 270m before any major pumping is required. If things go to plan, the mine could employ 2,500 workers in its new incarnation, supporting 10 times that number, not least since “the Wits reef”, say geologists, “does not lend itself to mechanisation”.

Employment and government revenue are not the only drivers. There are environment, health and other safety considerations, a special concern for those at risk from mining detritus and zama-zama activities in surrounding communities.

South Africa still has more gold underground than has been mined. “It blows the geological mind,” says one Australian specialist, “that the single prospecting area of the Durban Deep area is the same size and wealth of all of Kalgoorlie”, referring to the legendary, giant Aussie “super-pit” gold mine.

But without fresh capital and improved levels of confidence in policy and political stability, you will get little more than zama-zamas. DM

Dr Mills is researching a new book for the Brenthurst Foundation.

Main photo: James and the sluice. (Greg Mills)

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