The Dystopian Underworld of South Africa’s Illegal Gold Mines – by Kimon de Greef (New Yorker – February 20, 2023)

Afew years ago, a mining company was considering reopening an old mine shaft in Welkom, a city in South Africa’s interior. Welkom was once the center of the world’s richest goldfields. There were close to fifty shafts in an area roughly the size of Brooklyn, but most of these mines had been shut down in the past three decades.

Large deposits of gold remained, though the ore was of poor grade and situated at great depths, making it prohibitively expensive to mine on an industrial scale. The shafts in Welkom were among the deepest that had ever been sunk, plunging vertically for a mile or more and opening, at different levels, onto cavernous horizontal passages that narrowed toward the gold reefs: a labyrinthine network of tunnels far beneath the city.

Most of the surface infrastructure for this particular mine had been dismantled several years prior, but there was still a hole in the ground—a concrete cylinder roughly seven thousand feet deep. To assess the mine’s condition, a team of specialists lowered a camera down the shaft with a winding machine designed for rescue missions.

The footage shows a darkened tunnel, some thirty feet in diameter, with an internal frame of large steel girders. The camera descends at five feet per second. At around eight hundred feet, moving figures appear in the distance, travelling downward at almost the same speed. It is two men sliding down the girders.

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