A vast underground network on the East Rand provides riches for those prepared to take the risk, writes Lisa Steyn.
On a well-trodden path through the bushveld, two young men appear on a small hill. Godfrey (25) wears a lopsided beanie and blue overalls.
His smaller friend, Andile (22), appears to drown in baggy green overall trousers and oversized Wellingtons. They are both covered from head to toe in a fine dust.
Neither has any safety gear, yet they have returned from an old abandoned gold mine shaft, not far from the place where, it is claimed, 22 illegal miners were killed by an underground rock collapse on March 5. Another illegal miner was killed nearby on April 21.
The East Rand basin, part of the Witwatersrand that produced more than 40% of the world’s gold, is said to have been the richest part originally. But today, with the exception of Gold One, the vast 1800km2 East Rand area has largely been abandoned by the mining companies, although it is still being mined daily by an army of illegal miners.
Last year only 3.5 tonnes were produced on the East Rand, less than 2% of South Africa’s total gold production of 187 tonnes. This small contribution is credited to Gold One’s Modder East operations. The other mines in the area (Pamodzi, Gravelotte Gold and Goliath Gold) did not produce an ounce.
The footpath is just one of many that lead to more than 100 shaft entrances and forsaken gold deposits not far from townships such as Kingsway and Lindelani, which lie among the grey-and-gold mine dumps in an otherwise sparse and dusty landscape.
The threat of death is not enough to deter the likes of Godfrey and Andile. Each day they risk life and limb to retrieve the gold from below. And, at R300 for a gram of gold concentrate, for them it is worth it.
Their backpacks, made out of mealie-meal sacks with canvas or string for straps, are filled with kilograms of ore. All it requires is a chisel and a hammer to work away chunks of rock from the reef. Out in the open the rocks glisten when they catch the dim autumn sunlight.
“We can each make up to R1 000 a day,” said Godfrey, who is on his way home to break up the rock and sort the precious metal. Underground they use ordinary head lamps bought from wholesalers in places such as China City in nearby Johannesburg.
“I don’t know how deep it is. I just walk down, down, down,” said David, an illegal miner and former Pamodzi employee.
It is stuffy inside and the miners must sometimes wade through water in the flooding shafts. The network of shafts, some of which have not been in operation for more than 50 years, is vast and interlinked.
“I can walk from here [Springs] to Nigel,” David said.
Rocks of God
The miners do not fear the law. “There is nothing they can do to us. We are just mining rocks of God.”
Access to the shafts is just a matter of climbing in and walking downwards. Even shafts that have been sealed up with concrete or steel are often broken open in a few days.
Nezi, a local woman, said it was an everyday event to see men walking through the veld to the mines.
Some take heavy-duty equipment and petrol-powered generators with them. They are often underground for days at a time and have to take food with them.
Apart from the risks associated with poor infrastructure in the old shafts, gangsters and criminals reign supreme.
Out of the woods
“There is factional fighting all around; everyone carries weapons. It is so dangerous that not even the police will go down there,” said Christo de Klerk, general manager of Mine Rescue Services.
Theo Pouroullis, finance director at Manhattan Corporation, the owner of Gravelotte Gold that operates in the East Rand, said there were armed gangs fighting for territory underground. “This includes underground armed skirmishes, booby-trap explosives being set and competition between rival gangs.”
David said the underground wars were certainly a concern. “Some of the guys – the gang leaders – are carrying AK-47s,” he said.
But even if one makes it to the surface, one is by no means out of the woods. David said tsotsis often waited at shaft entrances to try to steal the ore.
The rise of illegal mining in the area is blamed partly on the shutting down of the Pamodzi mine, which left thousands without jobs. Locals in Kingsway and Lindelani said the illegal miners were mostly former Pamodzi employees left without pay or a way to get home when the mine shut down in 2010.
Pouroullis said illegal mining in operational mines had been dealt with firmly in Barberton, Mpumalanga, and it was believed that many of the illegal miners from there had migrated to the East Rand. “Illegal miners tend to take advantage of areas where there is a perceived weakness and no key focus on dealing with the problem,” he said.
Trade union Solidarity and Gold One estimate that there are 400 illegal miners, but Pouroullis said the number was more likely to about 1500. However, township residents and an employee of Pamodzi’s liquidators said the actual number could be several thousand.
Once the spoils are brought to the surface, it is anybody’s guess how the precious metal, free of official certificates, makes its way into the market. Historically, buyers used to wait at the shaft entrances to buy the ore, said Pouroullis.
The department of mineral resources, the Chamber of Mines and the Gauteng police all say they do not know how it reaches the market.
“The man without legs”
Solidarity has conducted interviews with illegal miners on the East Rand and found that the metal was usually taken to one of two places. In nearby Daveyton, those interviewed said they delivered it to “the man without legs”. Others said there was a dealer in Johannesburg’s inner-city Bree Street.
Industry sources have estimated that, nationwide, profits from illegal mining could amount to about R5-billion a year, but the department would not put any figure on it.
But, the increase in illegal mining in the East Rand can no longer be ignored. A task team involving the mines in the area, the department, police and other parties has been set up to deal with it.
But the grand days have long passed on the East Rand and it is unlikely that illegal miners will stop coming back to clean its carcass.
No counting the dead
It is claimed 22 illegal miners died in a rockfall in an area between the Grootvlei and Gravelotte mines in Springs in March. Although they were assumed dead, a rescue team was sent out four days after the incident had been reported.
Christo de Klerk, general manager of Mine Rescue Services, a company contracted by the government to carry out rescues in abandoned or derelict mines, said there was the “definite scent of decaying bodies” but only one was visible through a crack in the rock.
The situation was hopeless, he said. “It [the rock] was a solid 30m in length, 8m in width, 2m in height and 1000 tonnes in weight.”
Steel gates have since been welded to the entrances and security guards posted there.
On April 21, another illegal miner died at the Gravelotte gold mine while trying to open a sealed mine shaft. – Lisa Steyn
Jobs could stem the tide
Last month Gold One and Goliath Gold conditionally agreed to buy the liquidated Pamodzi Gold Grootvlei assets for R70-million.
Grant Stuart, head of investor relations at Gold One, said new mining activity would help to stem illegal mining. It could create more than 7 000 new jobs in the next five to 10 years.
But the existing mine shafts and the activities taking place in them will not be the responsibility of the new owners. Stuart said they were well aware of the issue of illegal mining, but only the areas bought by the company would be secured.
Gold One planned to explore previously unmined areas, isolated from historical infrastructure and flooded workings, and sink new mines.
Neighbouring mine Gravelotte Gold has sealed off or placed guards at 14 shafts and aims to secure all access points by mid-year. It is undertaking a feasibility study into investing more than R300-million to start up its own facilities for processing 25000 tonnes of ore a month, which could bring employment to more than 2500 people for the 20-year life of the mine.