‘If we don’t do this‚ what can we do? I don’t want to be a criminal’ … Zama zamas talk about life underground

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Shhhk. Shhhk. Shhhk. They are furiously turning the levers on modified gas cylinders‚ which are filled with rocks laced with gold (hopefully)‚ water and mercury‚ which helps to separate the gold from the rocks‚ while binding the pieces of gold.

The process can take hours‚ and if Learnmore and the other men are lucky today‚ they will end the day with enough gold to put together a few grams to sell to a buyer.

Each gram sells for around R450.

On any given day‚ dozens of men in this Gauteng community are busy grinding the rocks and processing the gold. They stand in small groups outside shacks‚ in the middle of a major passageway through the settlement‚ meters from Main Reef Road on the West Rand.

At times they are almost completely visible to the motorists driving past‚ other times half hidden behind grass.

But this isn’t where it starts for these men‚ who are based in the same community on Johannesburg’s West Rand‚ as they go underground‚ down narrow tunnels and navigate kilometres underground to mine the gold when they are starving.

“We have to work. If we don’t do this work‚ what else can we do? I don’t want to be a criminal‚” says Gipza‚ a fellow Zimbabwean living in the same community as Learnmore.

Gipza‚ just like Learnmore and most of the men who find themselves in this line of “work” in this community‚ didn’t choose this life. They came to South Africa and after months of struggling to find work and barely surviving from piece jobs‚ saw other men carve out a living for themselves.

“I left Zimbabwe in 2009 and I came to work in my uncle’s spaza shop for about six months. If the spaza shop is not yours‚ you don’t make enough money to sustain yourself and your family‚” says Learnmore.

“So that’s when I found this group that told me about this work and I saw that I can also do it.”

Learnmore‚ just like the countless other men in this community‚ refer to what they are doing as “work”. But for most South Africans‚ government‚ mining institutions and the police‚ they are a menace. Heavily armed criminal gangs. They are known as “illegal miners” or “zama zamas”.

Despite attempts by government and other entities to clamp down on illegal mining activities through various means‚ including heavily armed security stationed at some mines‚ Learnmore and the other men on the West Rand say they will continue doing what they do to survive.

“There are days where I have to go work because it is too rough and I need money. But I don’t do it as often as I used to‚ because as you have seen it is not safe‚” he says‚ after climbing down a narrow tunnel into a bigger cave system.

This hole‚ he says‚ was used as part of the ventilation system when this gold mine on the West Rand was still actively mined.

“When it gets really rough‚ I will go down‚ but once I think I have enough (money) I will not go. I will look for piece jobs as a painter or something‚” he says.

Learnmore worked all through 2009‚ 2010‚ and 2011‚ but a rockfall that broke his arm and the death of someone he knew made him change his mind.

Climbing down through the narrow tunnel the miners use as an entrance‚ the first thing that strikes one is the humidity and the stench of gases and fumes rising from deep within the earth.

These fumes are another one of the reasons Learnmore‚ who has a wife and a young son‚ decided to work less.

“I’m not scared about the people robbing me‚ I’m scared of all the gases. If you go down‚ all the gases can attack‚” he says‚ tapping his chest.

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