Johannesburg - With his shotgun slung casually over his shoulder, Colonel Andre Laing looked victorious.
“It’s a war zone down there,” said the operations commander at the Roodepoort police, pointing to the cavernous depths of illegal mineshafts hidden in a patch of scraggly veld in Roodepoort. “Today, we helped fight the war.”
But, beyond the police’s intermittent war on illegal mining - his team, together with Gauteng police, arrested 12 of the miners on Wednesday - looms a more dangerous and bloodier battle: underground turf wars between Basotho illegal miners and their Zimbabwean counterparts.
And on Wednesday, the Basotho gang weren’t going to go down without a fight, firing at the police after they were overcome by teargas the police had thrown in the rocky shaft they control.
“We got a tip-off they have been holding the Zimbabwean and Mozambican illegal miners hostage. They force them to work underground the entire night, and when they come up, they steal their gold and shoot at them.”
An uneasy truce between the rival groups had ended.
“Until February, there used to be a kind of apartheid in these shafts - the Sothos on one side and the Zimbabweans and Mozambicans on the other. Now Sothos control these shafts.”
As Laing spoke, a commotion erupted: residents had spotted an illegal miner hiding in scraggly undergrowth. They picked up stones, ready to pummel him.
“Stop! Stop!” the police shouted, pointing their guns at the residents.
“Pray that they don’t release you because we will kill you,” said a barefoot Zimbabwean miner, who claimed he had been forced to work for several days by a rival Basotho gang.
“Enjoy being a lady in there (in jail),” another said, his face coated in white dust.
“They force us to mine for them,” said another miner. “When we come back up, they rob us and shoot us.”
“These people are terrorising the community,” said Laing. “There are weekly murders. They are killing each other and those who come to buy gold from them.
“Police seized several weapons, including a revolver, and were still searching for a missing rifle. Those who were arrested face charges of kidnapping, possession of unlicensed firearms, theft and assault.
“The firearms are a priority for us. They use those to commit robberies and murders.”
It is alleged that the miners were held hostage for three days, beaten, shot and pushed down steep shafts. It appears that they were allegedly forced to mine for the gang, which made off with their bags.