Steep stairs lead to the “FNB” entrance at the abandoned gold mine shaft in Langlaagte, west of Johannesburg. They become even narrower as the hole – named after one of the largest banks in the country, for the riches the shaft produces for the Zama Zama’s (the so-called “illegal” miners) — looms.
To descend into the shaft the miners climb into the round passage, gripping the grooves as they clamber into the darkness. The only equipment they have with them are battery operated headlamps, perched on beanies or head wraps, small knee pads tied to their legs, and a hammer and chisel.
Rats frolic outside the “FNB” entrance in the George Harrison Park along the busy Main Reef Road. The area was declared a heritage site as it is in this spot where the namesake of the park, a British prospector named George Harrison, discovered the largest gold-bearing reef in the world in 1886. But there’s nothing around the derelict mine which shows it helped build Johannesburg, the “City of Gold” and the South African economy. Instead old boots, shabby discarded clothing and hundreds of old batteries from the Zama Zama’s headlamps litter the entrance.
The “FNB’ entrance was the focus of much attention this week after 200 Zama Zamas were affected by the underground release of carbon monoxide. The official number of trapped miners was difficult to establish, confused and miscommunicated, since there were no formal records of how many people go down the shaft daily in very risky conditions to eke out a living.
Throughout the three-day vigil outside the entrance to the shaft the sangomas conducted rituals in attempts to appease the “snake” that lives in the disused mine. Zama Zamas say the snake has been angry of late and “has been breathing fire” (deadly carbon monoxide) through the tunnels.
David* is among the group of men who wait outside the derelict mine for news of his colleagues. Tall and lean with wide shoulders, he appears to be giving orders, running between the group and the sangomas. The Zama Zamas appear to consider him an authority figure while he shouts for more men to join the recovery operation and more water and torches to be taken down the shaft.
At first, he appeared uneasy around the media cameras telling journalists not to capture the miners’ faces as they feared arrest. But as time wore on during the eight hour recovery operation of the two bodies, he opened up.
“The police are shit, the government is shit, the Mine Rescue Services is shit. The 35 year-old David was among the men who’d gone down the shaft to show Mine Rescue Services around because “they only know mines from books”.
David is from Zimbabwe, he came to South Africa as a child with his parents. His father was a mineworker in a Carletonville goldmine, further along Johannesburg’s West Rand and he followed in his father’s footsteps, going underground to work as a locomotive driver.
David shakes his head when asked about why he left the job there: “I used to earn R4 000 a month from the company, I can now make R30 000 from 3 days underground,” he says. Ironically, he also found working for a mining company more dangerous than “illegal mining”. He flexes his right arm, saying it had been broken in a mining accident “it’s never been the same since”.
He now relies on his strength and knowledge of the labyrinthine system of underground tunnels to support his family. The money he makes toiling with a hammer and chisel is paying for his sister to complete her management degree at the University of Johannesburg. She is in her final year there and David says he’s pushing for her to complete her degree as their parents have died.
He’s also supporting his two daughters who are in Grade 12 and Grade 9. “They want to become police officers”, he says without a trace of irony. He’s prioritising their education now but hopes to buy a truck one day and become an owner-driver for South African Breweries.
Zama Zama means “try, try”, which is exactly what these men descending into the bowels of the earth do on a daily basis. The tunnels from “FNB” in the West Rand, stretch under the Johannesburg CBD to Benoni on the East Rand.
The miners can be found in disused gold mines in the Free State, Mpumalanga and the North West. They follow the “gold belt”, navigating the decades old tunnels, some of them just 30 metres wide, avoiding poisonous gases like carbon monoxide and hammering away at the rocks using simple tools.
The miners sleep inside the tunnels, if it’s a long trip, and use a large stream flowing under Johannesburg as their toilet. David laughs when I ask him about the reported spaza shops underground selling bread to Zama Zama’s for R400 a loaf: “There’s nothing like that, you have to take all the food you need in yourself, but you really need water mostly. You can survive for days without food but you need water, especially in the dusty conditions.”
When the miners come up, blinking into the sunlight, after spending as much as two weeks underground, they face fresh dangers. Some gangs wait for Zama Zamas to surface and rob them of the gold bearing rocks they carry in the sacks on their backs. They also fear arrest and police confiscating their gold.
The only way to survive this harsh world is to band together with comrades. The subaltern city underneath Johannesburg is strictly divided along nationality and ethnic lines. David and the others who’ve gone underground to find their colleagues bodies are from Zimbabwe and are Ndebele. “The Shona’s aren’t here, they don’t care as the bodies aren’t their own,” he says.
Miners from Lesotho form one of the largest groups operating in the disused shafts beneath the city. They work a five-hour walk away from “FNB” and appear to want to hide the location of their discovery of rich gold bearing rock.
David says Zulu and Xhosa miners also work underground in teams, but adds that most South Africans form the underground gangs who rob the miners of their sacks of gold: “They don’t want to do the hard work.”
He describes how he goes down a mine, usually with ten others, always Ndebele and from Zimbabwe. They keep their headlights on as they chisel away at the hard rock listening for anything untoward. If they hear another team coming, they switch off their headlamps and run into the dozens of tunnels he knows how to navigate from going down this shaft for ten years.
“I’ve escaped bullets many times,” says David. He points down the black hole that is the FNB entrance “there are many bones down there”.
David says the miners have to be “sweet” to the people on their teams underground as they depend on each other entirely. “If you’re nasty and you fight, you won’t come up, they’ll push you down”
They pay a security guard R40 when they go down “FNB” and he protects them together with a group of men he recruits from a nearby hostel.
“The Zulus have firearms,” says David.
Steven*, the head of security, also appears to be a leader figure among the miners waiting outside the shaft. But he’s heavyset, immediately setting him apart from the wiry Zama Zamas. The money paid for security enables them to surface with their sacks of gold-bearing rocks, unhindered by gangs of thieves. They also continue to use the FNB entrance despite its proximity to the Langlaagte police station.
Given the levels of trust the Zama Zamas have to invest in each other, it’s easy to see why they faced dying to bring their comrades bodies to surface.
Bob* is a professional from Zimbabwe living in an upmarket suburb north of Johannesburg. He came to the West Rand mine on Sunday when he heard about the situation. He refers to the hardened men, fondly, as kids. The Zama Zamas trust and like him as he spends his own money buying them torches to take down the mine for the recovery operation and for food and water. He tells me about the sense of solidarity Zama Zamas have for each other: “It’s like the US army, they’ll never leave one of their own behind.”
I naively ask Bob if the syndicate bosses were informed of the latest tragedy. He laughs and says “the media and the government make this much more complicated than it is, each guy works alone, within the team”.
I’m incredulous as government maintains it will need to break the high level syndicates and deal with “illegal mining”. Bob describes how the “illegal” miners come to surface with their sacks of gold-bearing rock, he points to the women sitting at the entrance to the mine who “grind the rocks, pour water on the dust and separate the gold. The miners then take the gold to the middle-men dotted around the nearby Braamfischerville Township where they get R500 –R550 per gram of gold. The Zama Zamas feel they’re cheated by the middle-men but can’t access the markets to sell unauthorised gold for higher prices.”
David looks toward the deep shaft when I ask him about his daily work being considered a criminal offence. He’s angry with the government: “I don’t understand why I’m a criminal, I’m not killing anyone down there, the only life I risk is my own, I’m not stealing anything, nobody else can get the gold out.” He says he’d be willing to accept regulations and health and safety laws for the industry if Zama Zamas were legalised, in exchange for not having to face the prospect of an 8 year prison sentence, every time he goes down the mine.
The South African Human Rights Commission published a report last year on “illegal” mining titled “Issues and Challenges in Relation to Unregulated Artisanal Underground and Surface Mining Activities in South Africa”. The report found 30 000 people were involved in this aspect of the informal economy over the last 10 years — and the numbers are increasing.
“In South Africa, artisanal mining is not legally recognised, despite its growth and the potential opportunities it offers, economically and socially. Further, these unregulated activities are synonymous with social, health and environmental ills, making it even more challenging to condone and manage. The complexity is compounded by the lack of research and literature on the issue in South Africa. Furthermore, there is a poor understanding of the profile of the artisanal miner in South Africa. Not all of these individuals and groups are involved in or, if they are, began the activity with the intention of becoming involved in criminal syndicates. Not all host mining communities have the same views around artisanal mining activity. Not all are non-nationals and neither are they all ‘illegal immigrants’. It is noted that the current socio-economic situation in many parts of Gauteng has pushed many people into illegal mining activities.”
Government is having to deal with “illegal mining” that stems directly from the cavalier attitude mining companies had toward workers, communities and the environment, during apartheid.
Under the Mineral Resources Petroleum Development Act (MPRDA) enacted post-apartheid, mines have to produce a 25-year-plan to rehabilitate and close a shaft after the life-span of the mine has ended. But the South African government is in a difficult situation with mines which closed before the legislation was enacted and nobody wants to shoulder the enormous cost of closing a mine correctly and rehabilitating the area according to environment specifications.
The carbon monoxide accident leading to the Langlaagte tragedy took place on Wednesday, September 7.
The Zama Zamas subsequently informed the Langlaagte Police Station, which is just a few hundred metres from the mine shaft entrance, that an unknown number of men were trapped underground, as the gas makes them weak and unable to move. They were told to call the Johannesburg Emergency Services (JES) for assistance.
A group of the Zama Zamas then went down the shaft in an attempt to reach the miners from their group. Several more Zama Zama’s went missing during this operation.
The official search operation by the Mine Rescue Services retrieved four people, who were later arrested and charged with illegal mining. The official search was called off on September 11 due to an underground fire and fears of further carbon monoxide releases. This resumed after three Zama Zamas went down the shaft on a reconnaissance mission and returned to inform authorities that the toxic gas levels had subsided enough to make returning safe. They were arrested for their troubles.
The Mine Rescue Services team went down the shaft again on Monday, September 12, to reassess the situation. They were fully kitted out in protective suits, oxygen kits, gumboots and hard-hats. The four Zama Zamas who acted as the rescue team’s underground guides joined their short prayer before the descent into “FNB”. They wore just sneakers and headlamps, but took oxygen kits as a concession to the authorities.
The team rescued one miner who was taken to hospital and another body was found. At this point, they rescue team halted the operation, saying they couldn’t see other bodies. But the Zama Zamas who guided them were adamant people remained down the shaft, beyond a false dead-end and down a narrow 30 centimetre tunnel.
David who was part of the team showing the Mine Rescue Services team around says the personnel was arrogant and refused to listen to them: “They just have book knowledge of mines.”
The Department of Mineral Resources called off the search operation on Tuesday and after spending the morning discussing their plans, 13 Zama Zamas avoided the media and headed down the shaft through a different entrance to bring their colleagues to the surface.
They did this knowing their comrades were dead. They did it because they wanted to allow the families of Sibangani Tsikwa (24) and Njabula Sibanda (31) the opportunity to bury their bodies back home in Zimbabwe — and to ensure that the correct traditional rituals were conducted.\
The two bodies were pushed and dragged for kilometres underground, usually up steep inclines, as more men were called into the mine to help.
One body was badly decomposed following exposure to underground temperatures as high as 35 degrees celsius for almost a week. But the Zama Zamas stuck to their task; despite the smell, the heat and their own exhaustion. They had no stretchers and used sackcloth and wires to cover the bodies.
The police made several appearances above ground during the operation, but didn’t want to be seen condoning an unofficial recovery mission and so did not assist the miners.
As night fell, scouts announced the Zama Zama team was increasingly closer to the srface. Men continued buying up the available torches in the area to assist those struggling to manoeuvre the bodies in the pitch-black underground.
The media moved their cars closer to the “FNB” entrance and shone their lights into the vast darkness. The sangomas chanting, an attempt to appease the ‘snake that lives in the mine’, grew louder.
The men on the surface went down the narrow stairs to pull out the volunteer rescuers, who were dusty and exhausted from the eight-hour recovery operation.
The bodies were placed on bin liners on the ground — because there was nothing else — and covered with sheets. The black plastic bags waved eerily in the chilly night air, giving the dead men’s limbs the appearance of movement.
Then the authorities stepped in and moved the distraught families away from their vigil next to the bodies and towards the fire where the Zama Zama rescuers had retreated, to give the families privacy with their loved ones.
After being officially declared dead by paramedics, the bodies were taken to the Hillbrow Morgue and will be retrieved by the families for burial in Zimbabwe.
The state had let them down at every turn. The South African government oversees an economy which is unable to absorb these highly skilled, entrepreneurial miners. The work they do, to stave off hunger, is criminalised, increasing the dangers they face.
Even in death, the Zama Zamas rely on each other to bring the bodies to surface and give their families closure. Government — the police, medics, officials — stood by.
David stands around the fire with his comrades listening to the “war stories” of their mammoth recovery operation. Pondering the lives lost. His dream is to emigrate to London and become a mine risk assessor for a large company, he flashes his easy smile: “There’s nothing about a mine I don’t know”.
*Names and specific details have been changed to protect identities
Main Photograph: The colleagues of Sibangani Tsikwa (24) and Njabula Sibanda (31) went into the Langlaagte mine to to retrieve their bodies after the authorities had given up – by Tehillah Niselow