Zamimpilo residents hostage to Zama-Zama war

A resident of Zamimpilo showing the conditions of the communal toilets in the settlement. All photos by Ramatamo Sehoai

Residents of Zamimpilo informal settlement say they trip over uncollected heaps of rubbish during the day and duck bullets from zama-zamas at night.

Zamimpilo residents say that they are under siege as warring factions of zama-zamas hunt each other and innocents are caught in the crossfire. The informal settlement in the west of Johannesburg is infiltrated by zama-zamas who have made living in the area hazardous, they say. Residents told Elitsha that they wish the sun would not set because night-time is hell. 

“At night we sleep with our children under our beds because bullets can easily rip through our shacks,” describes one of the residents, Samkelisiwe Ncube who is an informal trader from Zimbabwe. “It’s a blessing to live another day here,” she says and adds that her business has suffered severely as the result of persistent gun battles in the area. “Sometimes they will start chasing each other as early as 6pm. That means immediately I’ll have to close shop.”

The mother of three says she started selling fruit, vegetables, and cooked meals after realising she could not work anymore after a surgery. She stays with her one child while she supports another two back home in Zimbabwe. The less said about the police’s response to the warfare, she says, the better. “They only do two things: to pick up dead bodies and take bribes.”

On top of the criminal violence threatening their lives, Ncube says another headache is the lack of basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity. This is evident just walking around the informal settlement. You are greeted by the stench of raw sewerage, uncollected heaps of refuse, dusty passages, and children playing in the sludge.

“We used to have taps and toilets but those have since been vandalised by the nyaope boys [teenagers addicted to cheap drugs] who have stripped them of their metal fittings. Now the water is running non-stop into waste,” she says.

The remaining toilets are emptied just twice a week and taps are also too few. What electricity is available is thanks to illegal connections. There is a mobile clinic nearby, which they say is open twice a week.

Residents say that uncollected rubbish is a health hazard to them and their children.

Not far from Ncube is a 30-year-old mother of two who hails from Umzimkhulu in KwaZulu-Natal. She asked to remain anonymous. She says she has a matric and a security guard certificate but due to the scarcity of jobs and desperation to feed her kids, she ended up doing zama-zama work with three young men she pointed to, busy processing soil for mineral particles. During the interview she trembles and her eyes wander. She thinks journalists are working with the police and are coming to arrest her.

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However, her counterpart from Mount Frere in Eastern Cape, Kwanele Magawula, also with a matric and security grades, was not too intimidated to talk about his zama-zama work. He says what makes the place scary is the Basotho nationals who are killing each other in pitched battles for turf.

Zama-zamas from New Canada, another area where informal mining gangs are dominant, come to Zamimpilo to avenge their murdered comrades, he says. “Besides that, we live peacefully with other nationalities from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. There is no need to hate and fight each other. We are all trying life here and are facing the same challenges,” he says. Another young woman, a Lesotho national who asked not to be named, agrees that her fellow brothers are the ones tainting Zamimpilo with crime. She says under their blankets they carry heavy guns, ready to mow down whoever they deem an enemy.

“I remember one night while walking to my place. They hit me with a gun and demanded my cigarette. If I didn’t oblige they were ready to kill me with the slightest provocation,” says one of the neighbours.

Magawula says one his main challenges is the huge chunk police take of their produce through bribes. This makes him wish to find a proper job and leave mining. What makes him do this dangerous work more than anything else is the need to support his child.

A Zama-Zama using a phenduka to refine and extract minerals

Another zama-zama is Balisile Ngcotholo, also from Eastern Cape who echoed the same sentiment that had police not been taking bribes, they would have been rich and supporting their families in these hard times. The 66-year-old father of 14 children says before he retires, he used to work in the mines on the west rand. Now he is making a living as a zama-zama. On a good month, he makes up to R30,000 but, he laments, the police will come and take more than half of that, sometimes confiscating their refinery equipment (phendukas). “Honestly, these guys are cruel but there is nothing we can do. What we are doing is regarded illegal and we are very desperate. At my age, no one can employ me,” he says. 

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While the police could not deny rogue elements within their ranks, they say Zamimpilo is scary to them too. They recall one very dark night and they were out patrolling when their service van was hit with a stone. One of their colleagues had previously been hit in the head and suffered mentally. “We are lucky that was not a bullet,” says a policeman who spoke on condition that his name not be revealed as he is not authorised to talk to the media. He says roads in the settlement are too narrow making the passage of their vehicles difficult during emergencies.

Efforts were fruitless to get Langlaagte police spokesperson to comment on the matter.

A suspicious policeman speaking to Zama-Zamas in Zamimpilo

Councillor Msimelelo Lobi of Ward 68 in Region B says services were once provided to Zamimpilo but these were vandalised by zama-zamas who redirect water to their mining operations. Lobi said that the area is classified as ‘category C’, meaning it is not habitable and can’t be developed like other informal settlements because of gas pipes running beneath.

“There is also the issue of too many illegal mining activities taking place here and that can make the place sink at any time. We had a very big sinkhole here earlier this year. To address this, there is a plan to move people to a nearby development in Fleurhof, although the challenge would be that only few will qualify while the rest are illegal foreign nationals,” he explains. Out of approximately 10,000 people staying there, he says about 600 qualify for houses.

He also adds that people were removed before the 2016 local government elections but came back after the new administration failed to sustain the security deployment guarding the place against re-occupation. “Zamimpilo is currently one of the most dangerous informal settlements in the country,” says councillor Lob. He believes a massive operation involving all relevant departments is needed while hard evidence of police corruption must be collected to answer people’s suspicions. 

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