In South Africa, Gold Mining Has Turned Into A Crook's Game

Zama-zamas search for gold in a disused mine shaft in Roodepoort, South Africa.
Zama-zamas search for gold in a disused mine shaft in Roodepoort, South Africa.
Valérie Hirsch

KRUGERSDORP â€" A group of men are running away on a wasteland adjoining the residential district of Mindalore, in Krugersdorp (25 miles west of Johannesburg). They probably came out of the “Old Jerusalem” mine, opened in 1886, two years after the first nugget was discovered in Johannesburg, the city that gave the world one third of the gold extracted in the entire world History. Long exploited by the French company “Champs d’or” (“fields of gold”), it is now invaded by illegal miners, the “zama-zamas” (meaning people who get by, in Zulu).

They enter an old abandoned well covered with a concrete screed thanks to a new entry they dug just next to it. Among the old clothes and shoes littering the ground around the hole, you can see fiber optic cables. “They use them as rope ladders,” explains Michael Harris, a 62-year-old electronics engineer who lives in the neighborhood. “They’re just desperate guys trying to survive.”

A zama-zama climbs out of a disused mine shaft in South Africa ​â€" Photo : Jennifer Bruce/ZUMA

Attracted by soaring gold prices between 2003 and 2011, migrants coming from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Lesotho rushed to the 6,000 unused mine shafts in South Africa. Too deep and not profitable enough, many mines closed down or reduced their activities. As a result, South Africa lost its leading spot to become the sixth biggest gold producer, with 168 tons in 2014, compared to 1,000 tons in 1970. According to the South African Human Rights Commission, which in September published a report on the zama-zamas, said there were between 8,000 and 30,000 of them (for 140,000 “legal” miners).

Over the past few years, some of them formed violent gangs. In September, illegal miners opened fire with machine guns on the guards of a mine in Carletonville, south of Johannesburg. That same month, 34 bodies were found in the “East rand” (Johannesburg’s Eastern neighborhood), 24 of them shot dead during a fight among hundreds of zama-zamas. Mining companies have been spending vast sums of money to bolster security and also prevent cables, pump engines and metal pieces from being stolen. But all their efforts were to no avail.

In Doodepoort, 12 miles away from Johannesburg, police officers carry out car checks, without however seeming to be concerned about the 40 illegal miners working across the road. “Last week, they destroyed our ramps, but we rebuilt them the following day,” says Mthokozisi as he points to slopping plank, supported by bags of earth, which are used to collect the gold. “We can always make a deal with South African policemen. They’re very corrupted,” the 30-year-old Zimbabwean says. He doesn’t seem dangerous at all, with his small and lean body, and his soft and smiley face. “I’m not part of a gang,” he says. “I became a zama-zama in 2013 after I lost my job in a cosmetics factory. But I’ll stop if I find another job. It’s difficult and dangerous.”

Mthokozisi’s team brought two large buckets full of ore. “We stayed underground for three days,” he says. “It takes us one day to reach the lode. We sometimes need to crawl in very narrow tunnels and work lying on our backs. We dig a hole with a hammer, then we blow the rock with dynamite,” he explains. They work without protections, not even helmets. A stone hit Mthokozisi’s ankle, wounding him. Rock slides happen often and many men have died.

Two zama-zamas enter a disused mine shaft in search of gold â€" Photo : Jennifer Bruce/ZUMA

The gold-loaded ore is then grounded by some 30 Zimbabwean women. An exhausting job that pays next to nothing. Mthokozisi then mixes the powder with water and pours the mixture at the top of the ramp covered with a thick fabric to which the gold sticks. Finally, the last step: The mixture is discretely refined, in an abandoned shed that’s quickly invaded by the highly toxic mercury vapors, which are used to isolate the gold.

Again, the men wear no protection whatsoever. They only have eyes for the bills that a buyer, also a Zimbabwean, takes out of his socks: $350 for 15 grams (60% of the official price). The gold will then be sold to an Indian or a Chinese trader before it’s exported to the UK, China or Japan. According to the South African Chamber of Mines, “illegal mine exploitation and organized crime are deeply connected. The Human Rights Commission also denounces the collusion between some well-established South African buyers and exporters.

Mthokozisi manages to save up about $350 every month. “I want to build a house in Zimbabwe and send my two children to university. Even if I earn more than I used to, I don’t want to die here underground.” The young Zimbabwean is still traumatized by his encounter with a zama-zama gang from Lesotho in 2013. “There were six of them, armed with guns and knives. They intercepted anybody who was coming out of the well and stole their ore, their tools and their phones. After two days of being stuck inside the tunnels with about 100 guys, we decided to attack them with stones. 22 men died, including two from the gang. The others ran away.” Since that attack, four armed Zimbabweans stand guard outside the well.

Zama-zamas dig sand out of a open area near Main Reef Road in Roodepoort â€" Photo : Jennifer Bruce/ZUMA

In a bid to deal with this violence, the Human Rights Commission recommends that certain forms of traditional exploitation be legalized, as is already the case in other African countries. But they would also need to fight against the whole networks that take advantage of the miners. “In some cases, the zama-zamas are contacted by mine owners or refineries who want to avoid paying taxes,” explains Janet Love, who wrote the organization’s report. Meanwhile, on the old mining sites, rival groups fight one another, as if this was the Wild West.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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