Gold mining fuels booming but deadly, illicit industry in Johannesburg


In the Johannesburg suburb of Roodepoort, Fix, a sinewy informal goldminer from Lesotho, prepares to descent an abandoned mineshaft while he recounts stories of subterranean gun battles and unearthing the scattered bones of those who came before him.

“This is very dangerous work,” he says, draining a quart of beer for courage. “But there’s a lot of money down there.”

South Africa’s commercial capital of approximately 5 million inhabitants sits atop some of the world’s largest gold deposits, as evinced by the more than 200 towering spoil heaps that punctuate its sprawling cityscape. Millions of ounces of unmined gold are still believed to lie beneath its surface, fuelling a booming but frequently deadly illicit gold mining industry.

Fix, recruited and brought to South Africa by a criminal syndicate in 2013, has spent six years traversing Johannesburg’s estimated 140km labyrinth of underground mine tunnels. Sometimes, he says, he can go down a shaft in the far west of the city and emerge bleary eyed on its opposite edge a week later.

In some mining areas surrounding Johannesburg, informal miners have been rumoured to spend as long as six months underground, sustained by makeshift underground villages where basic foodstuffs, airtime, alcohol and even sex are sold at dramatically inflated prices.

Reports suggest that more than 300 informal miners – most of them illegal, and known locally as zama zamas, meaning “take a chance” in isiZulu – have been killed by collapsing mineshafts or, more frequently, in turf wars between rival syndicates.

Many more are likely still unaccounted for underground. According to a 2015 report by the South African Human Rights Commission, there are as many as 30,000 zama zamas operating across South Africa, most of them concentrated in and around Johannesburg. Like Fix, about 75percent are said to be undocumented migrants, primarily from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The rise of the burgeoning illicit gold trade, which is estimated to cost South African coffers more than £753m a year, is largely a product of the formal mining industry’s collapse.

Gold was first discovered on the Witwatersrand reef in 1886, by the 1970s, South Africa was by far the biggest global gold producer, with more than 75percent of all reserves, which contributed more than 21percent of the country’s GDP.

Between 2011 and 2016, Gauteng province, which comprises Johannesburg, also added almost a million new inhabitants through net migration from other South African provinces.

The country’s most urbanised province is expected to accept a million more internal migrants by 2021. (Source: The Guardian)