The ‘Birthplace of the Sun’ novel had to incorporate the story of the Zama Zama, as it is so central to its core theme: Gold.
It highlights their plight and blight in the hopes of obtaining regulation over an industry gone rogue both for the sake of the miners, and the mining industry, but also for those who suffer because of its lawless environment.
The research not only shows the dangers illegal miners deal with daily but also the dangers they result in.
In February, this year, more than 100 legal miners had to be rescued from a mineshaft collapse at the Makonjwaan Gold Mine, and 3 people are still considered missing. The disaster sparked an outcry from AMCU and was widely reported in the press.
Yet, an article by CNN in 2014 told of how a rival illegal mining gang blocked the exit and trapped up to 200 illegal miners alive underground in just one incident. Some were rescued but untold numbers perished, ‘causing barely a ripple of outrage in South Africa’, they reported.
Illegal mining is mostly done by undocumented foreigners who are desperate for work. In a country that already has more than 50% of its own youth unemployed, foreigners are usually the last to find formal work and to be protected under the law.
Gold Mining Fatalities:
Mining has always been a dangerous occupation, and gold mining is especially so due to the great depths involved, but it is infinitely more so for the Zama Zama.
- Official mine fatalities: 2003 – 270 souls, 2007 – 221 souls, 2008 – 168 souls, 2009 – 169 souls, 2010 – 128 souls, 2011 – 123 souls, 2012 – 112 souls, 2013 – 93 souls, 2014 – 84 souls, 2015 – 77 souls
- Illegal mine fatalities: Could be in the hundreds each year though there are no figures (official / unofficial) available or released to confirm the actual numbers, as few are even registered.
Lawless Zama Rules:
- Rape and robbery of nearby residents.
- Rival gang wars:
- Gun battles abound both below and above ground, as well as at the mines and in the surrounding areas.
- 32 Zimbabwean and scores more South African and Lesotho illegal miners were killed in just one incident by rival gangs of Mozambicans. Most were shot, others were stabbed, some were set alight, and the rest were bludgeoned with picks and shovels,
- Others resulted in dead bodies abandoned in the veld, and still more in Roodepoort,the West Rand, Benoni and Springs, Johannesburg.
- Forced invasions of private land:
- Attempts to take over and dig up the property of a private Guest house property, believed to have gold deposits,
- Forced invasions of legal mining operations by large gangs of illegal miners overrunning security, and
- A business owner who wished to create a tourist attraction near Gold Reef City was invaded by illegal miners intent upon driving him from his gold rich land. They slaughtered his prize horses, poisoned his dogs, burned his home to the ground and ran him off his land, so that their illegal activities could continue unhindered. What remained had been looted and could not be visited without strong police protection. But the Police could not remain there 24/7.
- No respect for the police and the abduction, slavery and killing of rival members.
Dangers they face themselves, include:
- Toxic gases: With no safety laws protecting them, they use poisons in their smelting processes at serious health risks to themselves (including Mercury poisoning), with little or no protection.
- Weeks underground without seeing sunlight.
- Basically no safety (not even a hardhat) or communication equipment with the surface.
- No rescue plan or rescue source (beyond friends and family), as even official rescue teams are seldom willing to go into the dangerous tunnels after them.
- Diseased lungs and cancers, predominantly of the throat, mouth and lungs.
- Abductions, beatings, executions or enslavement by rival members.
- Being burned or buried alive by rival gang members.
- Dying of smoke inhalation or being burned alive. Setting fires underground to cook meals and burn the extracted soil, so that the mercury mixes better with the gold, can easily spark underground fires, if a natural gas pocket is struck unwittingly.
- Dying of diesel fume inhalation. Some use diesel generators for lighting and so on, without extraction fans.
- Being buried alive from collapsed tunnels, entrances or any number of other dangers.
- Being robbed of their haul: in their own tunnels, as they climb out their shafts, or on the way to the gold buyer.
The Illegal Trade of Gold
Whilst the miners take all the dangers, associated with their illegal activities, they get very little for their efforts – around R350 per gram of gold sold in 2014.
The gold traders rake in the millions…just one was reported to have made R17 million in just five months
It is estimated that around 10% of South Africa’s entire gold production is from illegal activities, said in 2013 to amount to a staggering R72 billion. ‘The South African Chamber of Mines says that more than a hundred and fifty million dollars was lost to zama zamas between 1999 and 2004.’ CNN reported.
Of course this is not only a South African problem…but a world-wide one. Wherever there is poverty and mineral riches there will also be exploitation, such as the Illegal miners in Tanzania using child labour, as young as five years of age.
The South African Civil Society Information Service noted in their article: ‘Illegal Gold Mining in South Africa: The Deafening Silence on the Lives and Deaths of the Zama Zama Miners‘ that at the 2013 congress…the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) realized that, ‘… alongside fighting for decent work for already formally and informally organised workers, entrepreneurial workers who live in the shadows of formality in precarious jobs need to be recognised and organised if a better future is to be realised for all.’
Whilst it is recognized that this is a very convoluted issue with highly irregular and fractured players, which would make an easy fix difficult under any stretch of the imagination, it is hoped that the focus will spur a desire for some beginning to its resolution.
‘Birthplace of the Sun’ gives a very simplistic answer to this very complex problem – a hope almost…to spur action…to get it resolved for the sake of all involved.
Am I being naive to think that with the will anything can be resolved?