They call them zama zamas which means ‘those who try their luck’. Wearing his traditional Zulu earrings, looking hirsute with whiskers on his face, this is Dumisani Ngcamu, otherwise known as Ntshebe – ‘the bearded man’. He is an illegal miner and has been risking his life for eight years trying to scrape a handful of gold dust underground to support his eight kids. He works in abandoned mineshafts around Johannesburg, a city in South Africa built on gold.

“You see, here in Johannesburg, gold is everywhere but people don’t know that. Sometimes you don’t have to go deep, it’s closer than you think,” says Ngcamu.

A trip to Johannesburg from his village Nquthu, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, looking for greener pastures, led Ngcamu to illegal mining even though he never worked in a mine. Immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe, the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique introduced Ngcamu to this industry as a marketer of syndicates.

“I was earning R30 ($2.20) a day, I did not mind how small it was because I had food on my plate. I knew this was a serious job when I got arrested, but luckily for me I had learned every process of mining. I knew where to find gold,” says Ngcamu.

After he was released he went on his own and started mining in built-up areas.

“I mined within near distances, I reached barriers where you would find houses and firms, I then realized I could make more money in abandoned mines. That’s when I started working with other people,” says Ngcamu.

It all revolves around a shanty town called Denver, near Johannesburg, where most of the residents are from the KwaZulu-Natal. Here, shacks and shady corners are full of idle youth who drink to drown their sorrows and clusters of people playing chess and cooking meat. The majority of people in this area are the poorest of the poor and try to make a living through illegal mining and crime.

“Whenever government officials wanted a gunman, they knew Denver was the perfect place. R5,000 ($370) was enough for criminals here, but today you won’t find a single criminal because everyone is involved in mining,” says Ngcamu.

“You would hear that a policeman has been shot at Denver hostel on a daily basis, no police officer would enter this place back in those days, but today we are able to communicate with them.”

The troubles on the surface match the problems underground. There’s fighting between factions and theft among rival groups of illegal miners.

“They used to rob our stuff. When you’re down there you need to act like an animal. Things I encounter down there are devastating. I saw someone being hit with a hammer on the head; if you are a handsome young man, without a beard like mine [laughs], they would rape you and kill you. I was lucky not to get caught. Shootings and a person being lost is common in there.”

Ngcamu survived a horror encounter with a rival faction.

“You even have slaves. They catch you, tie you up like you a goat, hold you hostage and make you work for days. Your job would be to work and you deliver the gold dust up until the exit point. If you say you tired, they kill you, and luckily I managed to escape,” he says, while chuckling.

He says foreigners are most prone to such torture.

“When I look at this country, foreigners are not seen as humans, they are seen as animals. Those [foreigners] who I mined with were mostly victims of such things. If it is a group of mixed nationals, then things will get sour.” 

Such experiences led Ngcamu to appoint people to act as security guards who would look out for them while they dig. He knew where to find them.

“You know who is a criminal in your area so we appointed criminals from Denver. We told them the money they will make with us is better than what they would make from crime.”

“Now we are free, because we know people are looking out for us. Everyone is benefiting. Police are happy because there is no crime,” he says.

Illegal miners even pay the guards with a plate of gold dust after they have returned. As it is a community business, women and children are also involved. Women are mostly employed in the manufacturing of the gold. They are tasked to use a piece of equipment called a phenduka – a hand driven cylinder.

Iron balls and water are added inside the perforated phenduka stand. After spinning, the water is sifted into plastic buckets until liquid mercury is visible when being strained. The end process is burning the liquid mercury until it becomes solid gold, then it goes to the market.

David van Wyk, a mining analyst who has studied illegal miners for decades as a researcher for the Bench Marks Foundation, knows the lives, challenges and syndicates of zama zamas. You’d be forgiven if you mistook him for Albert Einstein with his vast knowledge.

“In Africa, before colonialism, people did small-scale mining. Traditional African mining was small scale artisanal mining all over Africa. You still find it in Burkina Faso, it also happened around Great Zimbabwe. If we want a situation that is not so disorderly, that is no so violent and unsafe, we need to pass regulations for small-scale mining and allow it to take place,” he says.

According to Van Wyk, small-scale mining started 200 years ago, before big companies started operating, but it is seen as a threat to the weakening South African mining industry.

“As we have a downward curve in the availability of gold mining, we have an upward curve in small-scale mining.”

“Economically their costs are very low, they do not use a lot of water they do not use a lot of electricity, they don’t use a lot of technology,” says Van Wyk.

He believes the reason there is factional fighting is because of the syndicates the zama zamas work for. Syndicates struck a deal with the zama zamas to buy gold from them; they then sell the gold to the formal economy. They provide zama zamas with food and water and make deductions when workers, like Ngcamu, return from digging. Van Wyk, though, says some of the syndicates are against illegal mining.

“My allegation against the Chamber of Mines, who are always making a noise about zama zamas, is that their people are involved. My second problem with the Chamber of Mines is that they represent monopoly mining, that’s why they are very much against zama zamas.”

“In South Africa, if you are black and you shoot an animal, you are a poacher, but if you are white and shoot an animal you are a trophy hunter; same applies to mining.”

The Chamber of Mines of South Africa refutes the claims.

“It is simply a mischievous claim. As is the case in most countries around the world, mineral resources in South Africa belong to the state and may only be mined by licensed operators. It doesn’t matter whether it is small-scale, medium-scale or large-scale mining, the point is, it needs to be regulated,” says Charmane Russell, spokesperson of the Chamber of Mines.

“If we formalize zama zamas and actually create laws and regulations and organize them into cooperatives, then there can be training in mine health and safety for these guys,” says Van Wyk.

Mines Rescue Services has been rescuing trapped illegal miners for the past 92 years.

“The challenges we face is that there are no maps, no mine plans. We do not know where to go. We work in extremely dangerous conditions. That’s why we have to work with illegal miners to guide us to a place where these guys are trapped,” says Christo de Klerk, CEO of Mines Rescue Services.

De Klerk and his crew use specialized equipment to roam underground and search for illegal miners. He believes the conditions illegal miners face is inhumane.

“If you look at the amount of the bodies we have recovered, a lot of those bodies were killed during the faction fighting; these people are armed and very dangerous.”

“Authorities have to get together to stop them, we have to stop the inflow of illegal immigrants, we have to try and close all these holes, the prosecution of these people is important but the main thing is that the syndicates who buy gold and sell the gold must be infiltrated and stopped,” says De Klerk.

Ngcamu disagrees.

“Government needs to rethink things; they shouldn’t listen to those who say shafts should be closed because it is risky. We know it is risky; they should stop acting act like they are in sympathy with our lives when they just want to prevent us from getting small fortunes. We’re hungry, they should let us eat,” says an irate Ngcamu.

Not far from Denver, Ngcamu takes us to a place where they first started mining. It seemed like a long day at work for the security guards who were looking out for the illegal miners. Not far away is a metals factory. Pointing towards it, Ngcamu has a story to tell.

“You see when they started operating here, they would call the police on a daily basis to come and arrest us for mining next to their company. Luckily for us, the officers were black, they were our brothers, and they understood us. Criminals used to steal their metals, but now it has all stopped. They do their business we do ours, it’s just a mutual agreement,” he says.

After some explanation and pleading, one of the security guards who didn’t want to be identified agrees to speak and sugarcoats how they deal with criminals.

“We tell them what they’re doing is not right and should never repeat it. A lot of people know what gold looks like so they would be taking chances to undermine us,” he chuckles.

“You see, if government closes these mines that would mean he has killed all of these guards and their families. That would make government responsible for deaths of these people,” says Ngcamu.

The whole country was in shock as scores of miners were rescued in an abandoned mine in Langlaagte, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Four dead bodies were recovered in a day that proved to be the last throw of the dice for illegal mining, events there brought about a lot of public debate on how to stop it.

“What happened in Laanglagte doesn’t deter me; whenever you enter a certain job you will face challenges. Even in firms, you can die reading a newspaper; you can die even though you occupy a top position. So what happened to our brothers won’t make us cry, to our brothers’ families we send our condolences but we expect anything down there. When we go down we pray, when we return we pray,” says an unapologetic Ngcamu.

The mine in Laanglagte is abandoned by Central Rand Gold, leaving opportunities for Ngcamu and his crew to make a living. Van Wyk believes Central Rand Gold, listed on the in the London Stock Exchange, should never have received a mining licence in the first place. The mineshaft is situated at George Harrison Park which has been a national monument since 1946. Next to the park is the 99-year-old school, TC Esterhuysen Primary School, with its football pitch 10 meters from the mine pit.

“The mine did not have water, so they used the school’s water, which is illegal as well. When we talk about illegal mining, we always blame zama zamas, but people don’t know how many big monopoly mining operations, listed on the London Stock Exchange, that are operating illegally and flaunting the laws of this country,” says Van Wyk.

Ngcamu says nothing will stop them from mining.

“If I stop, what will I say to my two kids at university? People need to be fed, for me stopping is not an option.”  

This article first appeared in Forbes Woman Africa and is republished with its permission. Subscribe today by contacting Shanna Jacobsen [email protected]