Emergency workers enter the disused Durban Roodepoort Deep mine to retrieve the bodies of illegal miners who died after inhaling underground gases.  Picture: THE TIMES
Emergency workers enter the disused Durban Roodepoort Deep mine to retrieve the bodies of illegal miners who died after inhaling underground gases. Picture: THE TIMES

LEGALISING informal mining would be the only way to introduce and enforce more humane methods of gold production, the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg contends.

"Nonsense," says Boats Botes — Zama Zamas are not interested at all in being legalised.

The chief of security at Chinese-owned mining company Gold One has protected mining operations for 30 years.

There are two categories of Zama Zama, he says: those who hammer away in shallow tunnels and the professional ones, whom he deals with.

When his company acquired four shafts from Harmony five years ago, thousands of illegal miners were working them. Botes infiltrated informants into the shafts who discovered that illegal miners were being smuggled in by the company’s own employees.

The employees charged the Zama Zamas up to R4,000 to get in — more than half their monthly salary at the time.

The illegal miners remained underground for months at a time and were supplied by the Harmony workers with dynamite, batteries for their headlamps and food.

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BOTES’S spies established the prices of food sold to the Zama Zamas: a loaf of white bread cost R80 when delivered to a shaft, a jar of peanut butter R150, a bottle of brandy R1,500 and a loose cigarette delivered underground was R10.

Next, Botes’ team investigated the Zama Zama’s methods of operation. The cleverest among them exploited the mining house’s operations. When the legal miners detonated explosives at the end of their shifts, the dust was given four hours to settle before the next shift arrived to remove all the rocks containing gold.

The Zama Zamas covered their faces with wet cloths and accessed the blast site after two hours to remove the gold-bearing rock.

They ground, washed, separated and burnt their loot in the tunnels. They used ingenious methods to smuggle the pure gold out of the mines, Botes says. Some filled condoms with gold and asked female miners to insert them in their vaginas when they went to the surface.

When Gold One bought the four shafts from Harmony, Botes says, the Zama Zamas were stealing R7.5m in gold each month. The cumulative costs of security, the damage caused by the illegal miners and the loss of tax income to the state amounted to more than R15m a month.

When Botes’s men finally confronted the Zama Zamas, there were gun battles in the tunnels. The illegal miners planted bombs as well, but one lost his right hand after a bomb with too short a fuse exploded between his fingers.

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IN THE past five years Botes’s guards have arrested hundreds of illegal miners — 935 in 2008, a year later 376 and the following year 216. Today the four shafts are free of Zama Zamas.

Christo de Klerk, of Mine Rescue Services, first encountered Zama Zamas at an abandoned mine near Barberton. An illegal miner had fallen into a shaft. "It went from bad to worse," he says.

The 2008 economic crisis led to a steep rise in the gold price and the unemployment rate, accelerating the growth of illegal mining.

"And today," says De Klerk, "we have a horrible, horrible problem."

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