Millions of rands in sex, food and alcohol is being traded in secret underground cities linked to illegal mining activities in small towns such as Welkom in the Free State.
The town, once a hive of legal mining activity, was the site of one of the worst illegal mining disasters South Africa has seen when at least 34 “zama zamas” were killed in an underground explosion last week. In the aftermath of the explosion illegal miners, police and mine security experts have told stories of underground passages and tunnels in which everything is available for a steep price.
The existence of more than 6000 disused gold, chrome, diamond and platinum mines across South Africa has allowed for the creation of a thriving underground economy. One mining expert says the underground industry supports thousands above ground.
Spaza shops sell braaied meat, loaves of bread, tins of bully beef and chakalaka, airtime, toilet paper, Amarula, beer and whisky at exorbitant prices to miners who spend months at a time below ground.
Sex is also for sale. “What do you want? That’s what they ask you before you go down,” said Richard*, an informal miner. “Believe me it’s true, you can even buy airtime for cellphones.” Richard laughed, revealing that cellphone reception is clear 3km below the Free State town.
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