For many the idea of living underground isn’t all that appealing, but for those who make a living from illegal mining, these cities beneath the surface serve as a makeshift home – with certain ‘amenities’ taken care of.
The recent collapse of a mine at Harmony Gold’s Eland mine in Welkom, which resulted in the death of at least 34 illegal miners, has highlighted just how elaborate some of these underground cities really are.
For the right amount of money, the ‘zama zamas’ who call them home can also enjoy a few familiar comforts. TimesLive reports:
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.
Classy how they can get cellphone reception deep underground, but head up Signal Hill and you’re maxing out on 3G.
Oh, the horror.
Let’s hear from Philip*:
“There are entire towns down there. People go down specifically to sell. Some go down for sex. That costs R2500. The sex is from either prostitutes that are brought down or from legal women miners. When they take their shift breaks they meet the illegals for a few hours,” said Philip.
He said the syndicates which run the illegal industry have connections to help them source what is required.
“They make it easy for traders. They offer them cash in large sums. They have connections in bottle- stores, wholesalers, cellphone shops, battery stores and protective clothing businesses,” he said.
Philip said mine security and legal miners would often hear the zama zamas on their days off because they play loud music and party underground.
“When we go down there we can hear them, the sound travels. Sometimes it sounds like you are in a nightclub.”
Think of the most obnoxious, expensive nightclub you know – and then realise that their prices are nothing compared to what these miners are paying:
R1 500 for a six pack of Zamalek – no thanks.
All of this leaves us with the question of what, if anything, the police are doing to crack down on such operations. We know where this is going:
A Welkom police station sergeant, who cannot be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said of their battles with the zama zamas: “All we can do now really is run disruption operations. When we hear of storage sites we raid them and confiscate their goods. But in the end we have to give their parcels back.
“You can’t arrest people for being in possession of food. We often find farms being used as fronts for packaging their food. It’s not just one farm, but dozens. The farmers get big kickbacks for allowing disused storerooms to be used as packing and storage facilities,” said the police officer.
“When we do catch them making these food parcels, we cut open the packs so that they have to do it all over again. It’s all we can really do to frustrate them.”
They definitely don’t take a few beers, ciggies and bottles of Amarula for themselves. Definitely not.
If you ask Wits University anthropologist Robert Thornton, cracking down on these illegal cities would have a massive effect on the local economy:
“You don’t just have the miners going underground to mine. You have entire subsidiary industries developing around sites where illegal mining occurs. Within these subsidiary industries, you find people who make clothing, kneepads and protective gear, vendors selling food, and so on.”
…Thornton said should illegal mining suddenly stop overnight in a mining town, it would have “a major impact” on the area.
“Very few people realise how important it is to the economy of these mining communities.”
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and you can’t really point fingers at those who make a living from the illegal mining industry whilst a few fat cats up top rack up billions in personal wealth.
Still, R1 500 for a six pack of Zamalek? You have to draw the line somewhere…
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