Zama zamas threaten tourism near Bourke’s Luck Potholes in Blyde River Canyon

02 September 2022 - 12:38
By Kgaugelo Masweneng
Mining activities being carried out just metres from the Bourke’s Luck Potholes tourism attraction in the Blyde River Canyon.
Image: Ziphozonke Lushaba Mining activities being carried out just metres from the Bourke’s Luck Potholes tourism attraction in the Blyde River Canyon.

As oblivious local and international tourists frolic and capture nature’s beauty on their cameras at the Bourke’s Luck Potholes in the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga, danger from illegal miners is just around the corner.

This week, TimesLIVE noted an entire hidden illegal mining operation about 100m from the tourist attractions.

Several day visitors went about unperturbed at the possibility of coming into contact with “zama zamas” behind a koppie, who were going about their own activities.

The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) is concerned and hiking trails for the public have been restricted.

MTPA acting CEO Mduduzi Vilakazi said illegal miners have been a problem in the tourism hub for years.

“We had to shorten our hiking trail as they pose a danger, as they are heavily armed. If they take over these reserves we may not have [the] power to remove them. The safety of our tourists cannot be guaranteed while they are operating in our environment,” he said.

“They rob our tourists. It’s an old problem. We started getting affected during lockdown when some tourists were robbed. We have engaged police to ensure we carry out an operation to take out the zama zamas. The police are in the planning phase of what can be done.”

Tourists are no longer permitted to camp near the mine. 

Vilakazi said they will engage the department of mineral resources and energy on sustainable solutions.

“They [illegal miners] seem to have come from somewhere, because there are many of them now.” he said, adding they have been operating for about three to five years.

Police spokesperson Brig Selvy Mohlala said: “We have arrested 34 illegal miners during our operation in the Sabie area. We found them in possession of tools used in illegal mining. Most of them are from Mozambique. All of them are undocumented.”

The arrests were made in August. 

A short distance away, below the picturesque hills to the east of the potholes, lies the Bourke’s Luck Old Mine which was closed many years ago.

TimesLIVE was granted access to the staff living quarters which lead to the spectacular viewpoint. From the top we spotted men going in and out of the old shaft. Dressed in soiled clothes, they knelt, loaded sand into sacks and buckets and disappeared into the shaft.

It is believed the men live in the veld and villages near Graskop, the gold mining town established in the 1880s.

Mpumalanga police commissioner Lt-Gen Semakaleng Daphney Manamela said police are trying to counter illegal mining and are monitoring the situation. 

Zama zamas came under the spotlight in July when eight women were gang raped, allegedly by illegal miners, at an abandoned mine in Krugersdorp, Gauteng.

Communities near abandoned mines have since shared horror stories of zama zamas allegedly bringing crime to their areas.

Police and communities have intensified efforts to root out the illegal operators. Scores of them, mostly undocumented foreigners, have been arrested, some allegedly linked to the Krugersdorp gang rape. 


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