He is dirty and frail, his speech punctuated by a hard, rasping cough that buckles his small frame. He frequently spits up a brownish gunk on to the sludge outside G-hostel, the hub of illegal mining activities in Thabong, a township outside Welkom.
Sipho Mahabane is 22 but looks 10 years older. He’s worked as a zama zama (illegal miner) for four years and is a resident of G-hostel.
He stays with his grandmother in the hostel. “She took me from my mother when I was still a child. My siblings live nearby in an RDP site called Smarties. I don’t want to stay with them because there are no opportunities there. I like it here at G-hostel.”
Despite the recent disaster that has so far claimed the lives of 85 of his manyora (homeboys or comrades), he is sure that illegal mining will not stop. “We are all waiting for the noise to die down and then we will go down again,” he says, lowering his voice to avoid being heard by hostel residents passing by.
“There’ll always be a demand for gold on the black market.” Learning to operate underground is not “a choice but a must for survival”.
According to Mahabane, foreign gold smugglers – mainly from Limpopo and Mozambique — and local business people control illegal mining operations in the area. He says the kingpins operate syndicates, which include legal miners, shift managers and security guards.
The kingpins regularly visit G-hostel. “We don’t organise for ourselves to go down — the managers help us. They are known in the township and they like hanging around the hostel in their nice cars.”
Hostel dwellers regularly approach them for work. Once a team of between 60 and 80 miners has been assembled they are sent underground to mine ore, often staying for periods longer than three months. “The longest I’ve been down was eight months. I worked for a local businessman from Welkom,” Mahabane says.
It’s dusty, stuffy and cold down there, he says, and miners light fires to keep warm. There are designated areas for relieving yourself — and with all the digging plenty of sand to cover up the mess.
Communication with the surface is by walkie-talkie. For entertainment the miners hold parties and “drink a lot”.
But for that they pay. Although the kingpins supply them with food, water and security when they’re underground, miners pay inflated amounts for anything extra. Cigarettes go for between R200 and R400 a pack of 20 (depending on the brand), Oudemeester brandy from R800 to R1 000 and Fish Eagle whisky close to R1 500. Those with a sweet tooth fork out R20 for a lollipop.
The kingpins pay the guards R1 500 to R2 000 a go to secure access to the shafts for illegal miners. “When we are down we know that we are safe from the police or any danger from outside because they tell us when there’s something wrong,” Mahabane says.
“The kingpins are our buyers. We work hard for them and they reward us. We know that they make more from the gold but we don’t care, so long they give us something.”
Illegal miners do not only enter at disused mine shafts, they also use active ones. There are several points of entry such as “Pamodzi’s President Steyn shaft and the Intermines”. He says access to these two mines is extremely easy because the kingpins have good relations with managerial staff.
Life underground is often violent because miners fight for spots. “A lot of people have been killed underground for causing problems and some have been killed because they were hated,” Mahabane says.
“There are committees underground and once these guys decide that you should be killed, it’s over. The worst I saw was when they used a cutting torch and burned a guy to pieces.”
About five skilled legal miners are needed to supervise a large group of illegal miners. They supply equipment such as dynamite, pickaxes, sledgehammers, lights and cutting torches. They also show the illegal miners where to dig and blast.
Digging is done in shifts, ensuring a 24-hour operation. “We dig and blast the rocks and afterwards we put them and the soil particles inside sacks. Then we crush the rocks and the soil inside the sacks until they are fine particles. Afterwards we start smelting the ore underground,” says Mahabane.
Producing a lump of gold the size of a fist can take about three months underground, depending on the quality of the rock or sand.
Mahabane has been paid a lot of money in the past but he remains poor. The largest amount he claims to have received is R80 000 in 2006. “I was stupid then. I bought a second-hand Golf GTI from some of the thugs at the hostel. I drove it for only a few months and it was finished.”
He admits they were warned three weeks ago by some Harmony miners that there was a gas leak. “They said the leak seldom happens but that when it happens everybody underground should go to the surface because it could get very dangerous. We went out and a week later we heard about the Eland accident.”
On Wednesday scores of Lesotho nationals waited outside the Welkom mortuary for another round of identifying bodies. The rain and cold reduced the stench of decomposition.
Hearses, bakkies and a truck supplied by the Lesotho government waited to take the corpses back to Lesotho.
“Upon reaching Maseru the corpses will be put in the government mortuary and families will be called to come and fetch their loved ones,” said Lesotho High Commission representative Sethunya Koqo.
The influx of illegal miners is impossible to control because when they resurface Lesotho miners are envied by youngsters in the villages and are treated like rock stars.
“These guys go back to Lesotho driving fancy cars and wearing fancy clothes and bearing gifts for their families,” says police captain Stephen Thakeng.
So far at least 38 bodies of Lesotho nationals have been identified and 24 have been removed and sent home.
The zama way
Zama zamas dig and blast the rocks containing ore using sledgehammers and blasters supplied by mine staff. After collecting the rocks and sand particles they put them into a sack. The rocks inside the sack are then crushed with a hammer or against a hard surface to form fine particles.
Once the rocks and fragments are reduced to fine particles, the zama zamas take a small empty gas cylinder and widen the opening. This kind of cylinder is called lephenduka or mill.
The cylinder is then filled with the crushed rock and sand particles, mercury and cold water, and it is spun around for about an hour. The contents are then poured into a smaller bucket, which is immediately dipped up and down inside a bigger bucket filled with cold water. This movement filters out the soil particles, while the mercury holds down the ore at the bottom of the smaller bucket. The final product is called the amalgam.
A cloth is then wrapped around the amalgam and it is tightly wrung to take out the mercury. The amalgam is then put into a steel smelting pot and burnt using a cutting torch. This process of smelting ore takes hours and requires a lot of patience. After smelting and cooling the zama zamas use a salt-like substance called borax to clean up the silver-looking ore to bring out the golden colour. The product is then sent to the surface to syndicates which then pay the illegal miners when they resurface.