WELKOM, South Africa — Illegal miners here are called zama-zamas, or chance-takers, because they put their lives at considerable risk in the hope of striking it rich deep in the bowels of South Africa’s gold mines.
The overwhelming stench outside the Welkom mortuary is a pungent reminder that the gamble doesn’t always pay off.
More than 80 zama-zamas died last month in a fire that broke out nearly a mile below ground, in Harmony Gold Mine's Eland shaft, an abandoned part of the mine so dangerous that no rescue teams were sent to look for survivors. The mine’s owner and local authorities became aware of the tragedy only when the illegal miners requested body bags.
Now, every day the badly decomposed bodies are laid out on the floor of an unrefrigerated hall for identification by family members. Michael Xaba was one of dozens hoping — or dreading — to find answers one recent afternoon. He feared the worst for a friend who has not been seen for weeks.
“He was not even there when his mom died,” Xaba said. “If he’s here, I can go and tell his brothers and sisters.”
Words failed Xaba when he was asked to describe what he saw after coming out of the mortuary, his mouth and nose covered by the collar of his jacket, but like many others that day, he did not find what he was looking for.
The accident — one of the deadliest in recent memory — sheds light on an activity that strives hard to remain in the shadows. The illegal miners bribe security guards or enter through unattended shafts and then walk for miles through a maze of galleries to reach their destination. They often make deals with mine employees who sell them food, allowing them to stay for weeks on end underground.
South Africa is the world's third largest gold miner, producing 220 metric tons in 2008, and the illegal mining has also become a big operation, feeding on the country's widespread unemployment and poverty. Because a mine’s gold reserves are only grossly estimated and much of the illegal activity goes undetected, the extent of gold taken by the zama-zamas remains nearly a complete mystery.
“We say it’s a problem, but to say how big a problem is effectively almost impossible because you don’t know how much they’re taking,” said Anton van Achterbergh, legal adviser to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa. “They don’t clear it through anybody, so there is no way of measuring what they steal.”
The mining industry has reacted by beefing up security measures, investing millions to install infrared surveillance cameras and low-level radiation scanners. Over the past couple of years, Harmony has also intensified its fight against illegal mining, said company spokeswoman Marian van der Walt. In recent weeks, the company nabbed nearly 300 illegal miners in an operation that was unrelated to the latest accident.
Aware of the fact that illegal mining also involves its own personnel, Harmony has cracked down on corrupt employees. The mining company has fired 77 employees and 45 contractors so far this year for supplying illegal miners with food and equipment and facilitating their entry on private property.
“Bribery and corruption are rife,” Van der Walt said. “A large amount of money is offered to our own employees to allow them access to the mines.”
Welkom, a small mining town in the central province of the Free State (see map below), has become South Africa’s capital for gold smuggling. According to a study by the Institute for Security Studies, 86 percent of the gold-bearing material recovered by police from 2000 to 2003 came from the Welkom area. Over the four-year period, 1,734 arrests were made in Welkom, according to the report.
The number of arrests tells only part of the story. International crime syndicates are believed to buy the gold from the zama-zamas and to coordinate illegal mining operations but have largely evaded criminal prosecution. Even the foot soldiers are rarely caught with stolen gold and often avoid jail sentences.
“Most of the time you’ll get only equipment, which at the end of the day only qualifies them for a fine,” said Free State Police Superintendent Sam Makhele.
The key to eradicating illegal mining is cooperation between the police, mining companies and unions, say experts. South Africa's new mining minister said as much recently and insisted such tragedies could no longer be tolerated.
“The South African government will not condone illicit mining, but these are human lives that have been lost; children have been orphaned and women have been widowed,” said Minister Susan Shabangu ahead of a visit to the mine.
Meanwhile, the identification of the zama-zamas’ bodies continues at a snail’s pace. Many of the dead miners were from neighboring Lesotho and news of their death could take weeks to reach their families. The process is not made any easier by the advanced decomposition of the bodies.
“Some may be identifiable to the families by their faces, but mostly it’s through clothing, jewelry and tattoos and other identifiable marks on the body,” said Jeanne du Toit, the mortuary’s supervisor.
About two weeks after the accident, additional bodies still arrive almost daily to the mortuary, and only 34 bodies have been claimed by friends and relatives so far.
More GlobalPost dispatches from South Africa: