Johannesburg - For seven years “Spider-Man” has toiled, measuring his wealth by grams and keeping his identity from those he sees as strangers.
For each gram of gold “Spider-Man” digs out of the old mineshaft in Roodepoort, he says he makes R370. It is better than the R340 he used to make while mining illegally in Welkom.
But on Monday, “Spider-Man” headed into the disused mineshafts of Durban Deep not to find gold but to save one of his comrades.
Acting as guide, “Spider-Man” led a team of rescuers to where three miners had succumbed to methane poisoning.
He wouldn’t give his name, and he wore a Spider-Man mask, not only to hide his identity, but also to act as a filter against the dust and gas. This was meant to be a body-recovery mission. The incident had happened two days earlier, and there was little chance, the rescuers thought, they would be alive.
But as “Spider-Man” approached, one of the men raised his arm. He was alive. His two colleagues had not survived, and on Tuesday, members of the Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (JEMS) returned to recover the bodies. This time, said Nana Radebe, spokeswoman for JEMS, they didn’t need the services of the man with the Spider-Man mask.
The working life of an illegal miner is dangerous. Unlike their compatriots in the formal sector, there are no proto-team rescues when things go wrong, or medical aids. One illegal miner who watched the rescue on Monday said that when someone died underground, they were usually brought to the surface and left for the police to pick up. But for those who make it, the rewards are great.
“Spider-Man” claims he makes R10 000 a week - enough for the R1 200 pair of Puma takkies he wore, and ruined, during the rescue.
Wits University anthropologist Professor Robert Thornton said he wasn’t surprised that “Spider-Man” makes that much. He studied illegal miners in the Barberton area, and said he knew of miners who were able to build fancy houses and bought 5-series BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. And the price of a gram of illegal gold didn’t surprise Thornton. “This just shows you the efficiency of their operation and their networks.”
What “Spider-Man” makes from a gram of gold is much less than the official gold price. While legal and illegal gold are mined in parallel, there is a point, said Thornton, where the two merge. “Illegal gold makes its way into the formal smelters through the back door,” he explained. This laundering process might involve jewellers taking illegal gold and using it, or it could be as simple as paying off the guards at the gate of a formal smelter so as to gain access.
A large chunk of this gold, said Thornton, ends up in India.
No one knows how many illegal miners are out there, as they are difficult to count. It’s a problem that the government struggles to deal with and, believes Thornton, will never find a solution for.
So miners like “Spider-Man” will continue to risk their lives as they face rockfalls, odourless and deadly gas and even each other. For me,” laughed “Spider-Man”, “I will be a miner until I die.”
Illegal mining by numbers:
- R40 000 the amount illegal miner Spider-Man claims to make a month.
- R4 000 the basic pay of a gold miner.
- R474 the official price on Tuesday for a gram of gold.
- R370 the price offered for a gram of illegally mined gold in Joburg.
- R340 the price offered for a gram of illegally mined gold in Welkom.