JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Secret gold mines dug behind cricket stadiums, underground shootouts between rival gangs, men living in dark mine tunnels for weeks on end — this is the dangerous world of South Africa’s Zama Zamas.
The term means “chancers,” or “trying your luck,” and refers to illegal miners — some of whom made headlines this week after getting trapped in a disused gold mining shaft near Johannesburg. It is believed the miners were ambushed by a rival group that blocked the entrance with boulders and a concrete slab.
According to reports, passersby heard screams coming from a hole in the ground. Emergency rescue workers, police and TV crews rushed to the scene — but in an unexpected turn of events, the Zama Zamas refused to come out, fearing arrest.
Three days later, most of the miners have surfaced, though it is unclear if some are still hiding out in the hopes of evading heavy fines or jail time. At least 21 who came to ground were arrested and face charges of illegal mining. On Tuesday the bodies of two illegal miners were found at a disused mine in the same area.
While this story may sound crazy, it is surprisingly common in South Africa. GlobalPost explains.
Wait, what? A secret gold mine behind a cricket stadium?
Yes. In this case, it was a disused gold mine near the town of Benoni on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The Zama Zamas seem to have broken through a ventilation shaft. It is possible they were former workers at the mine who were familiar with the layout of tunnels below ground.
To back up a moment, Johannesburg was founded amid the madness of the gold rush of 1886. The city is literally built on old mines. In some areas you can still see strange yellow land formations called “slag heaps,” the detritus of a bygone mining boom.
Mining has remained a crucial part of South Africa’s economy, though in recent years blighted by high costs, weak prices and labor unrest. The country has 50 percent of known world gold reserves, and it is also the world’s biggest platinum producer.
At some old mines, there are traces of gold but not enough for a big company to bother with. Small-time operators try to eke out a living in what some have dubbed a second gold rush. The miners invade abandoned shafts, and sometimes even active mines.
So in other words, illegal mining is not unusual around here. There was even a 2012 film called “Zama Zama” about two brothers caught up in this dark world.
But this sort of DIY mining is highly dangerous. Battles with rival groups are common, as are fatal accidents. In 2009, at least 82 men believed to have been illegal miners died in an underground fire at the Harmony Gold mine in South Africa’s Free State province.
Illegal mining also causes environmental damage and lost revenue. Once the gold is extracted, it is sold on the black market. An estimated $509 million in gold sector revenue was lost every year due to illegal mining, according to a government study from 2008.
So why do people do this?
Because it is a chance to make money. Unemployment in South Africa is officially at 25 percent, though probably much higher when you factor in people who have simply given up looking for work. Many of the Zama Zamas come from poorer African countries such as neighboring Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland in search of work, but there aren’t many jobs to go around.
It is worth noting that a system of migrant labor has persisted in South Africa’s mining sector from apartheid times. Big mining companies have long used unskilled black laborers from distant rural areas to do all the hard work. Under the apartheid system, these workers were paid terribly, forced to work in unsafe conditions and to live in horrible “hostels,” with their families kept far away.
Today the mining sector remains dysfunctional, and is increasingly in turmoil with violent protests, strikes, and layoffs.
Are the “Zama Zamas” just a South African phenomenon?
No. In other African countries they are often called “artisanal” miners, which, yes, makes them sound like hipsters staffing gourmet food stalls at a weekend market in Brooklyn. It actually refers to small-scale or subsistence miners who mine with low technology — for example, old-fashioned panning for gold.
In Democratic Republic of Congo’s Katanga province, young children scrounge for copper and zinc alongside their parents, where they are exposed to dangerous conditions and harsh chemicals. In Mali there are reports of children working in artisanal gold mines. In Ghana, an influx of illegal, poor, migrant miners from China led to widespread violence between them and Ghanaians working at small-scale gold mining operations.
Many African countries are rich in mineral resources. But it is generally the poorest people who are most exposed to the risks, while failing to benefit from the riches.