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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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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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