Ten points about ‘illegal’ mining

A zama-zama using a 'phenduka' to refine and extract minerals. Photo by Ramatamo Sehoai

The public discourse on ‘illegal’ mining or zama-zamas has reached fever pitch with communities on Johannesburg’s west rand erupting in protest this week against the violence of zama-zama gangs. Here, David van Wyk explores ten points to get behind this ‘confusion’ or lack of critical thinking.


‘Illegal miners’ are not exclusively ‘foreign’; there are many South Africans involved.


Those from places like Lesotho and Mozambique are often recruited by syndicates, labour brokers and subcontractors.


Mining companies abandoning operations are often the ones buying the gold from ‘illegal’ miners. It is much cheaper to extract the remaining gold without unionised labour that is paid pensions, medical aid, UIF etc.  It is also cheaper in that the company does not have electricity, water and other service bills once an operation is taken over by ‘illegals’. 


The land on which abandoned mines are located has owners, often mining companies or local governments. The onus is on the owner to see that the land is properly managed or rehabilitated, and should he or she fail, legal action must follow.


Every abandoned mine along Main Reef road is a squatter camp. Often the residents of these camps pay rent: who are they paying rent to? 

Mine shafts used by Zama-Zamas perforate a hillside.


The ‘illegal’ miners use mercury to extract the gold from the ore: who supplies the mercury? Mercury is a prescribed highly toxic substance; you cannot just buy it over the counter. However, chemists can obtain it. We were told that a chemist in a township known to us is allegedly supplying ‘illegal’ miners on the East Rand with mercury. Mercury is also illegally obtained from government hospitals according to our informants.


The gold sticks to mercury, separating it from the ore waste. To separate the gold from the mercury a blow torch with gas from a cylinder is used: who supplies the cylinders and the gas? – I would suggest scrap metal dealers, who are also often buyers of the gold produced. The ‘illegal’ miners in Boksburg got the wrong cylinders; they thought that they had propane or butane gas cylinders with which blowtorches are operated; instead they had nitrous oxide or laughing gas. Nitrous oxide is used by dentists as an anaesthetic. Nitrous oxide would be available to chemists, dentists and the medical fraternity. So put two and two together, and you might be able to determine the supply chain. From the photos I have seen, the cylinders were in pretty bad shape, suggesting to me that they were probably from scrap metal dealers.

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Another question: where do the guns come from? They come from all over: the police, burglaries, the army and, more importantly, private security companies. We strongly suspect that private security companies are part of the syndicates and value chains around illegal gold. Are the guns supplied in return for gold?


Many, if not most, ‘illegal’ miners are former migrant workers and one-time union members of NUM, Numsa or Amcu. Many, if not most, did not get their pensions, UIF or other funds due to them on retirement or retrenchment. While working on the mines, they never received any portable skills training that would allow for them to work outside of the mines. They only know how to mine. That is how they put food on the table.

It is a disgrace that the pension and other fund managers make it near impossible for workers to access the monies due to them. This is because these fund managers make a killing from the interest accrued from these unclaimed funds.


Minerals are not renewable, therefore mining is not sustainable. It is no longer possible, in many gold and platinum mines, for large-scale industrial mining to continue, so large mining companies – the majors – are leaving the country, abandoning mines.

As a country, we should have started planning for a post mining economy twenty years ago already, and for a just transition to small and medium-scale mining to retain jobs and to keep mining towns alive. We should also have planned to repurpose mines and mining towns, possibly to turn them into hubs for supplying alternative energy, such as solar, geothermal or gravitational energy. Most mines had housing stock, clinics or hospitals, training centres and workshops, all of which could have been used to address key health, education and training, and housing challenges facing the country. Instead, towns like Durban Roodepoort Deep Village, Kleinzee, Sallies, Stilfontein, etc. have all been allowed to go to ruin and to turn into havens of destitution and crime.

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In South Africa, you may own gold in the form of jewellery or coins, but not in unprocessed form unless you have a mining licence.

David van Wyk is a lead researcher at Benchmarks Foundation

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