Illegal mining operations are believed to cost South Africa over US$500-million each year. Very little attention is paid to the human cost. In South Africa, illegal miners are known as “Zama Zamas”. Zama Zamas typically work existing mine shafts that have been abandoned or closed by large mining houses. Zama Zamas gain illegal access to these shafts either through force – by breaking and entering through security perimeters – or bribery. In either case, it is increasingly difficult and expensive to get underground so, once the Zama Zamas have entered a mine shaft they have to stay underground for months at a time, invisible citizens of an almost surreal subterranean state. Over the past three years, Photographer Dean Hutton has chronicled parts of the above-ground lives of these Zama Zamas, documenting the fractured nature of their work and their nominal family lives. Dean’s work highlights the parts of the Zama Zama story the mining houses and government is not comfortable talking about: the cycle of poverty, crime and death that keeps these men’s lives in the shadows, in the tunnels.   


Artist statement by Dean Hutton / #ZAMAZAMA4LIFE


What people are quick to forget about Zama Zamas is that they are the most vulnerable workers in the most mineral rich country in the world. South Africa is built on what has been taken out of these men and women’s legs and backs and lungs. People who have been asking for a living wage for over 125 years, now portrayed as “shrewd criminals” fighting The Man. The Randlords who squashed the miners’ strike in 1922, who made it impossible for black workers to unionise, who introduced the colour bar to protect white jobs, who funded the white nationalist government so the government could buy arms and the mining houses could keep mining, who were willing to negotiate a peaceful transition to a black-led government so long as black men and women would keep on working on the mines and the mining houses could keep making fuckloads of money. These lords of industry are being replaced by organised crime syndicates. Syndicates that promise a fairer cut than regulated industry.

South Africa isn’t as cheap as it used to be. Post-democracy, we can’t provide the world with a cornucopia of cheap black labour. Labourers are now “empowered” with a Constitution of tempered steel.  Now all the Zama Zama need do to earn a living wage is spend a month underground. Underground day and night; 24 hours a day. Underground for a month at least. A month in which you pay R50 for a potato. A pack of cigarettes can cost up to R2000.  This is a living wage. And then it’s just like Zama Zama the game show… something for nothing. And who’s getting rich? The people controlling the trade. International Organised Crime Syndicates. Otherwise known as Big Business.

But we read about Marikana. And we read about 200 men trapped underground. And we read about men dying above ground and men dying underground and men too scared to come up from the mines because they will be arrested. This is what it means to be #ZamaZama4Life.

Last year I met a former Zama Zama. He showed me pictures, on his little Nokia phone, of a time he was underground for six months. He said after that he was convinced he would die if he ever went underground again. The next pictures are of his kid. He wants to be there for his kid when he grows up. So now he helps organise supplies for other Zama Zamas working and living underground. To add insult to injury (an injury to one is an injury to all) those mines that became, less profitable, that have shut, are responsible for the upkeep and security of those abandoned shafts. So they are still profiting. Miners lose their jobs, miners lose their liberty, miners lose their lives. Mining companies aren’t broke though. Managers still get bonuses. CEOs still make thousands of times more money than any stope miner.

Who gets the blame?


That’s why I’m #ZAMAZAMA4LIFE


Click on images to see them in a slideshow 

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