The inside story of South Africa's illegal mining boom
'They are geniuses. They have engineers‚ communications specialists‚ people who can create special lighting systems. They operate with intricate buying and selling networks'
Across South Africa‚ mining towns are under siege from illicit syndicates.
Employing thousands of desperate jobseekers‚ these syndicates‚ who earn billions of rand annually through the illegal sale of precious metals and diamonds‚ are in fierce competition with global mining giants.
There are no shortages of workers‚ who flock to South Africa in their droves from impoverished towns and villages in neighbouring Zimbabwe‚ Lesotho and Mozambique.
Up for grabs are over 6‚000 disused gold‚ diamond‚ chrome and platinum mines spread across South Africa.
A big driver of illegal mining is rising commodity prices. It is estimated that about 10% of South Africa's gold production is stolen and smuggled out of the country - about R7-billion a year.
With a workforce 30‚000 strong - equivalent to the population of a small mining town such as Carletonville on the West Rand - the syndicates’ operations run day and night.
So competitive is the battle for the minerals that according to the Chamber of Mines‚ government has identified illicit mining as a national threat‚ with a multi-agency team formed to co-ordinate the State's efforts to combat it.
For the syndicates‚ like their legal international competitors‚ its all about wealth.
And it’s the expense and lengths syndicates go to get the wealth that is costing hundreds of informal miners their lives.
Since 2012 more than 300 illegal miners have died in clashes for control of mine shafts. These do not include the hundreds who have died from gas explosions‚ heat stroke‚ rock falls and diseases.
Last week Thursday a suspected methane gas explosion killed over 40 artisanal miners in the tiny Free State mining town of Welkom.
Since Monday police have recovered at least 29 bodies from the base of Harmony Gold's Eland Shaft.
But‚ the explosion has not brought the town's illegal miners activities to a stop.
"It’s the only way I can support my family‚" says Themba.
Themba‚ who would not give his real identity‚ has worked as an informal miner in the Free State since he left Lesotho nine years ago.
"It’s my life. It’s the best way I can support my family back home. What else must I do? There is no work at home and there is no work here in South Africa.
"Yes‚ this is not 'legal'‚ but the mining companies stopped mining these shafts so why can’t I come here and mine?"Themba lost his cousin in last week's explosion.
"It’s difficult. We know it’s dangerous‚ but the money is good. It will be hard for his family‚ but our bosses will sort us out.
"Frank was good. He always saved money. Every month he would put money aside. He knew he would die here‚ if not in an explosion then from the heat or the gas.
"At least now his family can build their house and send their kids to school. We make lots of money here‚ so their school fees‚ even for high school‚ will be sorted."
A Welkom mine security officer‚ who agreed to speak about the syndicates on agreement of anonymity and who has worked with zamas [illegal miners] on the side‚ said far from being disorganised they were highly sophisticated.
"They are geniuses. They have engineers‚ communications specialists‚ people who can create special lighting systems. They operate with intricate buying and selling networks.
"These guys are anything but stupid."
He said Welkom‚ the epicentre of South Africa's gold mining fields‚ was heavily controlled by the syndicates.
"The base of operation is the town's G-Hostel which is in Thabong informal settlement. It’s from there that the wheeling and dealings are done. "At any point in time there are multi-million rand transactions being done. Police are being paid off‚ money organised for prosecutors and magistrates to let cases drop.
"There is no one here in this town in the police or courts‚ who can’t say they have not been paid or know of someone whose been paid to look the other way."
A 2016 UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute report‚ which provides insight into the intricate operations of illicit global mining syndicates‚ says: "Analysis shows that the precious metal mining industry is the victim of organised crime groups with local syndicates connected to larger international operations consisting of Nigerians‚ Russians‚ Germans‚ Indians and the Chinese triads."
The report speaks to how the syndicates operate with their "middle managers" involved in gold sales‚ and the "high flyers" who have business and political connections.
The security officer said the syndicates operated across southern Africa.
"They have recruiters who target young men in their villages. Within a day of 'signing up' you are in South Africa at the mine. A day later you are underground‚ and there you stay. "The minimum you go down for is three months.
The majority of those who come here are from Zimbabwe‚ Lesotho and Mozambique. The South Africans are from the Eastern Cape."
He said the syndicates used special shuttle services to bring new recruits to South Africa.
"That’s where the corruption starts. From the border posts." He said once at the mine arrangements were made to take people underground.
"Security personnel get paid R5‚000 to allow the informal miners onto the mine. The lift shaft operators get paid R10‚000 per person they take up and down‚ while those operating on the different tunnel levels‚ who are known as the banksmen for storing the zamas’ gold‚ get paid R10‚000 to look left when the illegal miners walk right.
"The mine guys who get the big bucks are the gold reef surveyors. If you are a gold reef surveyor you are in high demand. You can earn up to R70‚000 just for giving information on where a reef is. If you agree to show them the reef you can make R300‚000."
He said once underground the miners spent days walking to areas where the gold reef was located.
"Often the areas they mine are 20km away from the shaft they have entered‚ with multiple levels having to be negotiated to reach the reef."
He said every new recruit was assigned to a group leader.
"Once underground these is no escape. It’s like a rabbit maze. There are so many tunnels‚ dead ends and vertical drops.
"Being underground guarantees that you won’t flee. The only way to survive is to stay with your leader."
He said that like on the surface‚ underground the syndicates had bosses‚ known as the "kings".
The kings are there to organise the smuggling of the gold and food and supplies into and out of the mines. "They are the middle men - the links to security officers‚ the lift shaft operators and the banksmen.
"They ensure law and order. They are the ones who spend a year underground at a time. They are pale‚ their skin is different because of no sunlight. They are feared.
"They are the big bosses and control absolutely everything underground. They enforce the laws with death‚ through special courts."
He said the laws were to ensure that all gold that was mined got to the bosses 'upstairs'.
"They ensure when and where the mining is done‚ who works in which tunnel and that above all that no one's gold is stolen. That’s to stop fights."
The laws‚ he said‚ were enforced by armies of heavily armed guards.
"They protect the miners from raiding mine personnel and the police. There are often battles underground. These guys don’t mess about. They are armed with guns‚ knives‚ and bombs. They booby trap tunnels to ensure no one can take them by surprise."
He said three months’ work usually earned miners R100‚000.
"The money is good. You hit a gold ball (tennis ball size of gold) you are rich. That’s worth at least R200‚000. Earning that kind of money who would not want to do their kind of work?"
He said a lot of the syndicates were controlled by wealthy malungus [white men]
"They become involved because they know the amount of cash to be made. They operate the pawn and gold shops‚
they set up the bosses in G-hostel‚ they organise the supply of equipment and food.
"They are the real bosses. They don’t only control what happens underground‚ but also what happens up here‚ the big bulk food stores‚ battery shops‚ protective equipment stores.
"These syndicates run these towns. The police think that they are in charge but they are also controlled.
"The big malungus are in charge because they have the money and the contacts. If you have cash and guarantee that no one will be arrested or prosecuted‚ which they do‚ you are number one."
For Richard‚ a Zimbabwean miner‚ although two of his friends died last week and there is the continued threat of danger from more explosions‚ he is going back underground this weekend.
"I borrowed money from the boss to help my kid who was sick. I have to go back down. I am scared‚ especially of the gas. You never know when it comes. You can’t smell it. You just get sleepy‚ your body becomes heavy and that’s it.
"If you are lucky someone finds your body‚ if not you stay there."
The conditions underground‚ he said‚ were terrifying.
"It’s dark. It’s hot. In some places the tunnels are so small you have to crawl on your belly or hands and knees.
"All you have to see with is a small helmet and headlamp. But what else must I do? These people know where my family are.
"My family come first and I will rather die than let something happen to them."
Last month‚ Zaheera Jinnah‚ a researcher for the Wits African Centre for Migration and Society‚ told The Times that illicit mining was run like a well-oiled machine.
It's without a doubt a business. a multinational‚ multi-ethnic enterprise with global reach which‚ like legitimate businesses‚ is driven by profit.
"From their buyers miners earn just short of the international price for gold. In a typical week on a bad run they can earn R10‚000. On average they earn R50‚000 a week."
She said the miners were just part of a larger syndicate that fed gold into the formal sector.
"They operate with dedicated buyers who expect certain profits and have national and international demands to meet.
''Everything to do with this industry is structured to maximise profits."
- TMG Digital/TimesLIVE