‘Thrown away like rubbish’ — Residents of what was once a rich mining town have survived the seven years since the mine closed. Thando Maeko attends a community meeting, where people talk about illegal miners, municipal failure and the potential opportunities offered by a new mine
“I ask that everyone speak and explain the issues in the community in their own language; I will translate,” says 57-year-old Solly Morobe as he gathers about 50 residents of the Blyvooruitzicht Mine Village in Carletonville for a community meeting.
The community has decided to meet in the heart of the old mining town to discuss the dire situation in the town and come up with a plan to address several issues that have plagued the area over the past few months. These include the lack of water, crime and rising unemployment.
Residents’ taps have been dry for the past three months after the municipality disconnected piped water, citing unpaid municipal bills. Sewage runs along the sides of the streets, filling the air with an unbearable smell. With refuse also not being removed, the smell is compounded by waste dumped on various corners. Heavy rains mean the already potholed streets are looking more mud-and-sand and less tar.
Crime has spiked because of the lack of jobs, according to residents. People repeatedly raise concerns about theft and illegal miners, or zama-zamas.
Around Blyvooruitzicht, people refer to Morobe as “Maimane”, after the previous Democratic Alliance leader, Mmusi. He has been living in the town since the late 1990s before being employed by the mine close by — first as a sampler in 2000, then as a health inspector in 2012. He has been unemployed since the mine closed seven years ago.
Morobe, originally from Sebokeng zone 3 in the Vaal, says he decided to become a community leader in 2017, when he realised that the situation in the town was not improving.
He says the zama-zamas moved into the town, when the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mining Company (BGMC) was liquidated after various wildcat strikes by workers, as well as falling gold prices.
For a town built on gold in the 1930s, this ended nearly a century of Blyvooruitzicht being one of the richest communities in the country. About 75km to the south-west of Johannesburg, the town was owned by DRDGold and then by Village Main Reef. Today it is owned by the latter’s liquidators.
Large-scale mining ceased in August 2013. But small-scale, illegal mining picked up when people had to find a way to make a living. Earlier in the week, before the community meeting, Morobe had a first-hand encounter with the zama-zamas when he found them digging outside his house in the middle of the night.
Their grunts woke him up and he went outside to find three people digging up copper cables at his gate, their faces covered in balaclavas. He pleaded with them to stop and was surprised when they did.
Two hours later, he heard the same grunts outside his house. This time, when he went to inspect the noise, he saw what he said looked like a gun before he even approached the group. He backed away slowly, allowing the operations to continue.
Back at the community meeting, a contingent of young people wearing DA T-shirts arrives, toyi-toying and singing struggle songs.
A trio of men, each wearing green T-shirts with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union logo on them, also slowly make their way to the meeting. Behind them, a woman drinking bottled water walks with her baby strapped on her back.
A community member stops and tells me: “Some people came last year, asking that we all sign up to be hired for the reopening of the mine. We all stood in a line with our IDs and qualifications hoping that we could be considered for any positions so that we could put food on our tables. Nothing has happened since.”
Another community member, Tshepo Molele* (people in Blyvooruitzicht are scared to share their real names), gestures to his crutches, saying he also waited in the queue and was promised an office job because of his injuries — even though he cannot read or write English to a professional standard.
He says: “Since 2013 the mine ran away and left us like this; they didn’t even leave food parcels. Right now we even have to buy electricity with money that we could’ve used for food.
“We can’t even return to our villages in the Eastern Cape because we will return empty-handed.
“There is nothing happening here anymore. We are just people who have been thrown away like rubbish.”
One by one, community members share similar stories of the challenges they have faced — and are still facing. The former mineworkers, secretaries, teachers and nurses all speak with an undertone of despair.
A man who introduces himself as Spinach tells the meeting that “the rats are feasting as we speak and nobody cares” and asks that “you don’t take all these things that we are saying and then it ends here. We need to do something outside of the walls of the village.”
Spinach adds that the cable theft in the area makes it even more dangerous for those people who have to wake up early in the morning to go to their workplaces in the Carletonville city centre.
“Those people have taken the electrical cables from the streetlights and it’s not safe for people who work early mornings or late nights,” he says.
As with many mining towns in South Africa, the company provided the more than 6000 residents of Blyvooruitzicht with basic access to services, including water, electricity, security and weekly refuse removal. These services stopped when the mine declared insolvency in August 2013, leaving the residents without basic services, and unable to pay for the services because they were now unemployed.
At the height of the mine’s operations, the town was a thriving community for families and boasted facilities such as clinics, churches, playgrounds, schools and other recreational meeting places. Now only the remnants of buildings remain — fountains, swimming pools and running tracks are overgrown with weeds.
Without the prospect of work for residents, but with gold seams still running under the rocky hills in the area, the allure of illegal mining is strong.
At the community meeting, people talk about a fight that broke out, allegedly between mineworkers, near the town’s Spar supermarket.
According to police reports, one group of zama-zamas was avenging the death of one of their own, who was allegedly killed by a rival group. Carlos Rebelo, the ward councillor, says the former group gathered on the edge of Blyvooruitzicht. He was there and scrolls through photographs on his phone.
The police arrived, he says, but they were outnumbered.
“One of the miners went to the cops to ask for protection from the other group. The cop then asked him to show him his passport before he could do anything. When he [the zama-zama] couldn’t show the cop his passport, the zama just walked away.”
Such violence is not unusual, according to residents. But such is the fear of zama-zamas that nobody at the community meeting puts up their hand to talk about the issue.
Towards the end of the gathering, one Sesotho-speaking man shoots down suggestions that the community should elect a group of up to 15 people who would make presentations to the provincial legislature regarding the challenges faced by the town. He cites previous attempts that failed. Instead, he says those who had been nominated to leadership positions had developed “big heads” by eating at the same table as the people he called “those who betrayed us”.
“That thing has divided us so instead of appearing before those people [authorities] as one united community, we end up looking like fools because we don’t come with the same message because others have been paid,” he says.
In the end, it is decided that the issue of electing representatives from the community would be discussed at the next meeting.
Afterwards, a woman, who introduces herself as Mama T, whispers that she wants to talk about the zama-zamas, but where she can’t be heard.
“People don’t want to talk, sisi, because some of the zamas were also here at the meeting.”
When the community elected 15 people to represent them, she says the windows in the home of the mother of one of the representatives were smashed in — while she was sleeping. “She stopped being an activist afterwards because she was too scared.”
Two other women join in, saying their children are “terrified” when walking to school because of the crime levels. “The teachers don’t know what to do except to tell the children not to talk to those people,” says Mmatshepo Leboko*.
She adds: “It’s bad enough that they [the school] keep increasing the price of the school fees, but they can’t protect our children. They have called the parents for a meeting next week to talk about how they want to increase the school fees from R300 to R400 and they know that we don’t work.”
Because parents are afraid, Leboko says they try to find R300 a month for transport — even though the school is close enough to walk to — because they are afraid that their children will be attacked.
None of the people I speak to have an example of when a child was attacked, but Leboko pragmatically says: “We would rather the children are safe [than take the chance].”
*Not their real names
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business fellow at the Mail & Guardian
Blyvoor Gold to resume operations in April
The Blyvooruitzicht gold mine is set to resume its first phase of operations in April. Production was meant to begin in the fourth quarter of last year, but was postponed because of various issues, including the delayed issuing of a mining licence from the minerals and energy department.
Blyvoor Gold’s chief executive, Alan Smith, told the Mail & Guardian that the delays had pushed production back by seven months. But now he expects full production will happen only by “August or September”.
In the meantime, Smith said the company is preparing to begin gold production at the 5 shaft, which was bought by the company in 2017, four years after the mine’s liquidation.
During the construction phase, the mine is using the services of contracted workers. Permanent workers will be hired as the mine begins ramping up gold production.
“We didn’t want to make this into a mega-mine where it’s just so big that it runs away with itself, said Richard Floyd, Blyvoor Gold’s deputy chairperson. “We only ever said that we will target between 600 and 800 jobs. That’s what we think is the sweet spot for this mine.”
Instead of digging down and blasting open rock, the mining team said they will be more selective about targeting higher-grade gold. This is a cheaper and safer method. That older mining technique cost about $1400 to mine an ounce of gold, which then might sell at $1500 an ounce. This new method halves the production cost.
At the height of its operations, Blyvooruitzicht was one of the most lucrative gold mines in the country. After its liquidation, illegal miners stripped the mine’s operations of copper and other valuable materials. Blyvoor Gold has now built a 2m-high wall around the plant to protect it from any intruders.
Smith said that Blyvoor Gold has invested more than R1.5-billion in refurbishing the mine. Of this, R1-billion was raised offshore and R500-million was raised domestically.
“Everyone turned their back on the mine’s operations. We then got involved because we found the mineral resource statement for this shaft and we found that there [are] 27-million ounces of gold underground,” Smith said.