Smoke rises from a derelict mine shaft 25 miles east of Johannesburg, where illegal miners cook, work and sleep below ground for weeks at a time.
They have broken through a slab of concrete covering the entrance to the shaft, one of 6,000 abandoned mines, many around Johannesburg, known as “eGoli,” or “City of Gold” in Zulu. At least 40 unlawful prospectors have died in South Africa this year as mines collapse, workers succumb to poisonous gases and gangs wage turf wars underground.
“Any mistake and you feel you’re going to be killed,” said Joseph Sithole, 23, an undocumented Mozambican migrant, as he stood among corrugated-iron shacks and rubbish-strewn paths near the mine. He recounted how last year he dashed to one side of a shaft after hearing a crack, narrowly avoiding being buried by falling rocks. He felt his way to the surface through clouds of dust.
Sithole is one of 14,000 people the government estimates are now involved in illegal mining, which comes as a drop in gold prices and aging ore bodies shut South African shafts. The practice has grown to create a complex criminal industry valued at 6 billion rand ($566 million) a year, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu said in February.
The government now plans to block up entrances to abandoned mines, compel owners to heighten security and increase convictions for illegal mining.
“It’s getting out of control,” Shabangu said. “We need to act with speed.”
While Sithole, in jeans and slip-on shoes, typically earns less than $5 a day, he said it’s worth the risk, because hitting a rich seam can make him significantly more and allows him to send money home to his mother in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital.
Sithole and prospectors like him are known as zama-zamas, or hustlers, in Zulu. They live and work in subterranean tunnels rife with robbery and prostitution, according to police. Illegal miners from job-scarce nations including Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho as well as fired workers from South Africa, where almost one in four is unemployed, are drawn to the shafts.
Rockfalls, gang violence and robbery are becoming more common as some of the zama-zamas fight between themselves for a bigger share of the profit. Sithole says that he and his colleagues work “innocently” and carry no weapons, which means they are victims of the violence.
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