Illegal gold mining has been on the rise for the past decade in SA. Worsening ore grades, rising costs (as shafts have been sunk ever deeper), bouts of labour and social unrest, and falling investment have all contributed to a sharp decline in the gold mining sector. As a result, widespread layoffs have halved the number of workers in the industry — from 190,000 in 2018 to just 95,000 last year.

As large mining operations have been shuttered, abandoned shafts have become ready targets for growing numbers of illegal miners. Many of these "zama zamas" — a Zulu term that roughly translates as "take a chance" — are from neighbouring countries, such as Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and have worked in the mines before...

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