Old SA mines an illegal bonanza
Mining towns are under siege from illicit syndicates operating in fierce competition with global mining giants.
Thousands of Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique workers flock to South Africa's 6,000-plus disused gold, diamond, chrome and platinum mines. Some 10% of gold production (worth R7-billion a year), is smuggled out of the country, say the UN's inter-regional crime and justice research institute and the Mineral Resources Department.
Ten days ago, a suspected methane explosion killed more than 40 artisanal miners in Welkom in the Free State.
But illegal mining continues. "It's the only way I can support my family," said Themba*, an informal miner since leaving Lesotho nine years ago.
"What else must I do? There is no work at home and there is no work here in South Africa. The mining companies stopped mining these shafts, so why can't I come here and mine?"
Themba lost his cousin, Frank, in last week's explosion. "He knew he would die here," said Themba. "At least now his family can build their house and send their kids to school."
A Welkom mine security officer said the "zama zama" miners were sophisticated.
"They have engineers, communications specialists, people who can create special lighting systems. They operate with intricate buying and selling networks."
The guard said Welkom was controlled by the syndicates. "The base of operations is the town's G Hostel. At any point in time there are multimillion-rand transactions being done."
With a workforce of 30,000, the syndicates run day and night.
According to the Chamber of Mines, the government has identified illicit mining as a national threat, with a multi-agency team formed to combat it.
Since 2012, more than 300 illegal miners have died in clashes for control of mine shafts.
These do not include the hundreds who have died from gas explosions, heatstroke, rock falls and diseases.
A 2016 UN report on illicit global mining syndicates said: "Local syndicates are connected to larger international operations consisting of Nigerians, Russians, Germans, Indians and the Chinese triads."
The security officer said the syndicates operated across southern Africa: "They have recruiters who target young men. Within a day of signing up, you are in South Africa at the mine. A day later you are underground. The minimum you go down for is three months."
Underground, the syndicates had bosses known as "kings". "They are feared. They enforce the laws with death, through special courts."
The kings controlled armies of armed guards. "They protect the miners from raiding mine personnel and the police. There are often battles underground [and] they booby-trap tunnels."
The guard said three months' work usually earned miners R100,000. A lot of the syndicates were controlled by wealthy white men, he said.
"They don't only control what happens underground, but also what happens up here, the big bulk food stores, battery shops, protective equipment stores."
Richard, a Zimbabwean miner, lost two friends in last week's explosion: "I borrowed money from the boss to help my kid who was sick. I have to go back down," he said. "I am scared, especially of the gas. "
*Not his real name