JOHANNESBURG – When he lost his job as a Johannesburg gardener a month ago, 25-year-old Sibangani Tsikwe did what millions of men have done before him: seek their fortune deep underground in the gold mines that help to define South Africa.
The decision has probably cost him his life.
Equipped with little more than a head-torch, pick-axe and nerves of steel, Tsikwe and a group of fellow Zimbabweans descended into the bowels of the earth on Sept. 5 via a derelict shaft at Johannesburg’s Langlaagte gold mine. He has not been seen since.
In the annals of South African mining, Langlaagte looms large as the farm where prospectors first stumbled upon gold in 1886, a discovery that would open up the richest veins of gold-bearing rock mankind has discovered.
Since then, the metre-wide seams, or reefs, that stretch for hundreds of kilometers east, west and south across the Witwatersrand Basin have produced more than 2 billion ounces of gold — roughly half of all the bullion ever mined.
In Zulu, Johannesburg is called Egoli, the City of Gold.
Yet history was probably the last thing on Tsikwe’s mind as he clung to a length of knotted string tied to a tree stump at the shaft entrance and took his first steps down the 30 degree slope into one of the most dangerous work-places on earth.
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