South Africa

COMMUNITY IN CRISIS

‘There is shooting every night’ — Terrified Riverlea residents vow to continue protests until police act against zama zamas

‘There is shooting every night’ — Terrified Riverlea residents vow to continue protests until police act against zama zamas
A 17-year-old illegal miner soon after emerging from underground where he had spent two weeks amid other dead illegal miners at one of the shafts in Langlaagte. | Riverlea resident Sherome Borman huddles with her family on the stairs to keep safe after the gunfire between rival illegal miners ensues. | A bullet hole on the window of Riverlea resident Sherome Borman's house from Saturday's gun war between illegal miners. | Aloma Davies, a Riverlea resident who is terrified of the frequent gunfire outside her house.(Photos: Bheki Simelane)

Protesting residents of Riverlea have demanded the police act against heavily armed illegal miners, or zama zamas, who they say regularly have shootouts in the streets.

Residents of Riverlea, in the south of Johannesburg, have little faith in Police Minister Bheki Cele’s promise to restore law and order in the area where the bodies of five illegal miners were found after running gun battles at the weekend. 

Cele visited Riverlea on Monday, 31 July, and promised to deploy specialised units to root out the criminal elements in the area.

Residents had barricaded the roads with burning tyres demanding the police act against heavily armed illegal miners, or zama zamas, who they say regularly have shootouts in the streets.

Cele was quoted by News24 as saying: “The response we want is for the police to come here and go toe to toe with criminals. The [illegal miners] can’t continue terrorising the community that lives in fear. We are bringing external forces. The Tactical Response Team is already here. 

“We need to go and find them where they are hiding. We need to flush them out of their holes. We need to ensure that they don’t interfere with the community. From the next day, we will wipe it [illegal mining] out.”

Despite Cele’s promises, there was no visible increase in policing in Riverlea on Tuesday. 

“They will come out, they will make promises and then forget about you,” said Riverlea resident Sherome Borman on Cele’s promised intervention.

Another resident, Aloma Davies, said the community would continue protesting if the government did not act. 

“We will burn again,” Davies said. “The government pushes the hand of the people to strike and burn. We are too old for that, but what choice do we have?”  

Daily Maverick was told that another zama zama was killed on Tuesday in what’s been reported as an ongoing turf war between rival groups.  

The SA Police Service has said that 1,199 illegal miners were arrested across the country between April 2022 and March 2023. The police have established 20 teams to combat illegal mining. 

Imposed curfew

Residents of Riverlea have implemented an after-dark curfew to keep safe.

“When the children come back from school, they know we keep them locked in. They open the gate, come through and lock,” Borman said. “This has been going on for about eight years now. 

“We are under lock and key the whole day — we are prisoners in our own homes.”  

“It has been like this for very long but the shooting gets worse and worse,” Davies said. “When the shooting starts, me and my son normally lie face down on the passage.”  

Davies’ 19-year-old son, who has Down’s syndrome, was still terrified when he spoke to Daily Maverick on Tuesday after he witnessed the heavy gunfire from his home on Saturday evening.

“They were shooting at me, hard. They were shooting hard at me and I was scared,” he said from the other side of a locked gate that the family keeps closed. 

“He won’t sleep in his room. He’s too scared for the bullets,” his mother said.

Between Zamimpilo and Horseshoe

Horseshoe in Riverlea is worst affected by the violence. It’s a lower-middle-class area and its residents are predominantly coloured. Most residents acquired their homes through bond agreements. 

Horseshoe is separated by a single street from the Zamimpilo informal settlement, where illegal mining occurs. Zamimpilo is relatively poor and consists of mainly black people, with many foreign nationals. 

Apart from the fact that zama zamas have made their lives a living hell, most Horseshoe residents know little about their neighbours in Zamimpilo. They said they see zama zamas holding regular and discreet meetings, which are often followed by gun battles. 

Abdul Fatah Rashid (32), who is from Pakistan but has been in South Africa for a number of years, runs a grocery store on the street that separates Horseshoe and Zamimpilo.  

“It’s impossible to not live in fear,” Rashid said. “Of course, we are scared. You just do business and try not to mind other people’s business here because you want to be safe. We are just here for business.

“We see [zama zamas] meeting and then we see [them] shooting each other. We do not know the background.”  

Borman said, “We witness the gunfire daily, but it intensifies from around the 25th of every month all the way to the end of the month. 

“It’s miners working underground for the whole month. So, when those miners come up there are these other people waiting for them. From the 25th up until the end of the month, that’s when it worsens.”  

Eric Bernstein (72) said, “We are having a lot of problems with illegal mining here with the shooting every night. We are terrified. 

“Every time towards the end of the month you have armed guys who are dropped off in buses or minibus taxis and they are here to shoot at the other guys.” 

Bernstein has lived in the same house on the boundary between Zamimpilo and Horseshoe for 46 years. 

He said the Riverlea community is close-knit and almost everyone gets along. But, according to Bernstein, many Horseshoe residents have relocated because their proximity to the Zamimpilo squatter camp significantly compromises the value of their properties.

‘It’s chaos here’

Horseshoe residents are demanding the government remove the Zamimpilo informal settlement and provide an alternative place for its residents to live. 

Zamimpilo was the third squatter camp set up in the area, but some of its residents moved after benefitting from the government’s Pennyville housing project.

When the informal settlement grew once again, many residents were reported to have been moved to housing in Florida. But Zamimpilo continues to grow.

“Illegal foreigners and illegal miners have now taken over the camp. They have come and upset the squatter camp. Many people have died and many have left their homes,” said one Horseshoe resident, who declined to be named for fear of victimisation.

He continued, “What happens is that the illegal miners come out of the shafts in the night, you see, and other illegal miners are waiting for them to come out of the shafts with gold and rob them. That is how most of the shooting starts.”

Bernstein said, “It used to be a nice place here. We planted the trees that you see. It was all peaceful. But it’s chaotic now. 

“This camp must just go. They must get the people other places [to live], but the camp must go down. It’s chaos here. There is no peace here. There is shooting every night. People are dying here.” DM

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