* Thousands drawn to South Africa's old gold mines
* Fatal accidents, violence underground common
* Police powerless to stop desperate illegal miners
* "Zama-zamas" stay underground for days
By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG, Sept 13 When he lost his job as a
Johannesburg gardener a month ago, 25-year-old Sibangani Tsikwe
did what millions of men have done before him: seek their
fortune deep underground in the gold mines that help to define
The decision has probably cost him his life.
Equipped with little more than a head-torch, pick-axe and
nerves of steel, Tsikwe and a group of fellow Zimbabweans
descended into the bowels of the earth on Sept. 5 via a derelict
shaft at Johannesburg's Langlaagte gold mine.
He has not been seen since.
In the annals of South African mining, Langlaagte looms
large as the farm where prospectors first stumbled upon gold in
1886, a discovery that would open up the richest veins of
gold-bearing rock mankind has discovered.
Since then, the metre-wide seams, or reefs, that stretch for
hundreds of kilometres east, west and south across the
Witwatersrand Basin have produced more than 2 billion ounces of
gold -- roughly half of all the bullion ever mined.
In Zulu, Johannesburg is called Egoli, the City of Gold.
Yet history was probably the last thing on Tsikwe's mind as
he clung to a length of knotted string tied to a tree stump at
the shaft entrance and took his first steps down the 30 degree
slope into one of the most dangerous work-places on earth.
Scores of illegal miners die each year in the labyrinth of
tunnels that stretch beneath the streets of Johannesburg and
beyond, although police and the government admit they have no
idea of the precise toll.
In most cases after an accident, the miners -- mainly
illegal migrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho
or Swaziland -- are reluctant to alert authorities for fear of
being arrested and deported.
When police and emergency services are called in,
mine-rescue teams often deem the risk too great, especially
after flooding, fires or rockfalls in 100-year-old tunnels
compromised by unauthorised and unregulated digging and
Tsikwe and his friends had food and water for four days and
may well have descended to depths of 4 km and travelled more
than 20 km through the tunnels.
When they failed to surface on time, his 24-year-old brother
Daroh raised the alarm. Of a 16-strong rescue team of illegal
miners that went in the next day, four remain unaccounted for
after they ran into clouds of noxious underground smoke.
Early on Tuesday, a joint team of government rescuers and
illegal miners brought up one body and a man who is now in
critical condition in hospital. Neither was Tsikwe.
"I don't know why he did it," a distraught Daroh, a
truck-driver, said as helmeted rescue workers peered into the
mouth of the shaft. "It was his first time."
Known in Zulu as 'zama-zamas', which loosely translates as
'those who try to get something from nothing', illegal miners
are now a permanent fixture of the shanties that ring
Johannesburg and its satellite towns along the gold reef.
Thousands are thought to be operating at any one time,
driven since the turn of the century by gold priced at more than
$1,000 an ounce, and the joblessness and economic hardship that
prevails across southern Africa.
Although illegal mining is a common problem across many
emerging markets, it has become particularly acute in South
Africa given the country's mineral riches and the legions of
poor people in the region.
In Zimbabwe, unemployment is above 80 percent but on a good
trip underground, a zama-zama can recover gold worth 3,000 rand
($210) or more once the ore has been crushed, panned and then
'cleaned' with mercury to remove silt, miners told Reuters.
As a labourer, Tsikwe would have made just 200 rand a day.
"I'll keep going down as long as I have strength in my body,
as long as I'm alive," said 61-year-old Justice Ndlovu, a
qualified tiler and father of 19 who has been working as a
zama-zama for five years.
"What else can I do? I don't trust the government to give me
money to live," added the South African.
Besides the frequent accidents, zama-zamas are blamed for
outbreaks of violence, including underground shoot-outs between
rival gangs, environmental pollution from the use of mercury and
links to organised crime through the illicit gold supply chain.
As such, the government takes a dim view of their
Nor is the problem limited to disused shafts, with mining
companies such as Gold Fields, Sibanye and
Harmony having to use elaborate and onerous security
measures such as iris-recognition scanners to prevent illegal
miners getting into active mines.
In 2012, then-mining minister Susan Shabangu said the cost
to the economy was at least 5 billion rand, mainly in the form
of extra security and the need to repair shafts rendered unsafe
Standing at Langlaagte mine, Johannesburg police spokesman
Kay Makhubela struck a defiant tone, saying anybody coming out
of the mine would be arrested for trespass and breach of South
Africa's mining laws.
But the reality is the police are powerless to stop the
BREAKING BACK IN
At Langlaagte, where the shaft lies just 400 metres from a
police station, the ground is strewn with thousands of discarded
batteries from head torches. A half-drum barbecue even stands at
the entrance to greet the miners as they return to daylight.
The Department of Mineral Resources, which is responsible
for disused mines, says it has blocked up 200 shafts, but with
thousands of ventilation and other openings dotted along the
reef, it is never going to be able to plug all the holes.
Even blocked shafts seldom stay that way for long, with
zama-zamas known to bring in lifting gear and explosives to
dislodge concrete slabs or cement plugs, according to the
Chamber of Mines, the main industry body.
Taking a different tack, the police and gold companies have
teamed up to target those further up the supply chain who spirit
the illicit bullion into the local and international mainstream,
although so far there have been few convictions.
The Chamber of Mines has even started to argue for partial
"Some artisanal mining, even where unlawful in the current
circumstances, has the potential to become beneficial to
communities if properly regulated," it said in a report
published this year.
But until the economies of the region start providing
alternative sources of income for the millions of unemployed,
little is likely to change.
"Whenever I'm on leave, I come down here," said Sipho Moyo,
a security guard from Zimbabwe who has worked as a zama-zama for
seven years. "There's no work in South Africa at the moment so
you've got to make a plan."
($1 = 14.2750 rand)
(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Keith Weir)