We choose not to rob people or steal from them. The only people we put in danger is ourselves, illegal miners tell Rabbie Serumula.
Johannesburg - From the bottom of a 15m deep man-made ditch that spans roughly one and a half metres in width, he answered my question: “I am afraid, but I am hungrier than I am afraid”.
*Alfred Khumalo is one of the illegal miners with whom I spent some time recently. The “zama zamas”, as they are known, spend their days foraging for leftover gold from disused mineshafts.
“You are down here with me, are you not afraid?” he asked me. Before I could answer he said: “We are all trying to survive and feed our families, but we choose not to rob people or steal from them. The only people we put in danger is ourselves.”
The 57-year-old started mining at mine dumps and closed shafts in 2001. “I worked as a fitter for many years and when the man I worked for died, I lost my job,” he said.
He supports his sickly wife and four children who live in KwaZulu-Natal.
Born in Orlando, Soweto, Khumalo rents a room in the township.
With the money he has made from illegal mining over the years, he has bought a stand in Lawley, near Ennerdale, where he will build a house – some day, he said.
Khumalo points to a man he calls Molefe, dressed in a brown woollen jersey, a grey beanie, ragged dirty pants and gumboots.
“He has taken three of his children to university with the money he has made from illegal mining.”
Illegal miners face a range of dangers including breathing in toxic gas, mercury poisoning and death.
But for them, this is just part of the job.
Khumalo’s dusty face sank at the thought of any other job.
“If I had another option I would take it, but I am too old to get a job,” he said, while shovelling sand into an empty mealie meal bag. “This is all I can do to fend for my family.”
“This is a mine dump and every bit of earth here the mine considers garbage,” he explained. “It’s like when you put out your rubbish bin for Pikitup to collect it and somebody goes through it. They can get sick from germs in your trash.”
Khumalo emphasised that illegal miners faced the same risks as those mining legally because they “also get trapped underground and die”.
Sounds of picks, shovels, and flowing water reverberate. A thick cloud of acrid smoke points to one of the steps in the process: checking the soil for gold.
Rubbing the soil in the mealie meal bag he had just filled, Khumalo explained: “You need to check the soil before committing to digging. You can dig all day and fill up 100 bags of soil with no gold particles.”
The soil needs to be a combination of broken glass, pieces of metals and what looks like common mine rubble, he explained. “Then you know there are gold particles.”
The traces of gold would be on the machines used to dump the waste, he said. Time consuming work with a reward: R350 per gram of gold when it is sold.
The next step is to drain the soil into a man-made filter.
“We use towels placed over tree branches for the filter. The soil is mixed with water in a plastic basin with holes drilled into the bottom. It lets the water flow on to the filter and precious metals gets trapped on the towels. The branches make the surface uneven and this also helps trap the gold particles.”
Knee deep in water, Khumalo poured water on to the soil in the basin. At this point the gold particles were still with tiny grains of soil that cannot be filtered.
Another finer filter followed, with the soil sieved on to a cotton T-shirt. His rough and muddy hands trembled as he lathered the soil over the T-shirt.
The remains were then placed on a zinc plate and heated on an open fire – the same fire used for cooking food for the illegal miners.
A quick swirling motion in a small plastic container mixes the remaining soil with mercury.
“We burn the soil to remove oil and clean the gold particles so they can mix well with mercury,” explained Khumalo.
He said they buy mercury for about R200 per 100ml from the same places that buy their illegal haul.
“When amalgamating, we have to stir the mixture thoroughly until the two substances mix to form a compound called amalgam.”
But it’s not the end for the men. Like the health and safety issues at the mine dump the streets also spell danger – they are a target for thugs who attack and rob them.
“With all the danger associated with illegal mining and even though it’s a crime, we know in our hearts we work hard to feed our families, and those who rob others for money are lazy and cruel,” Khumalo said.
And there is another step.
“The amalgam has to be taken to one of those guys who weld car exhaust pipes on the side of the road to be burned with a cutting torch at about 3 500ºC, turning it into pure gold.
“These guys usually charge R20, they burn it for about 10 minutes.”
And like a game of chance the illegal miner is never sure of the ending. “Sometimes you can get a few grams of gold and make a thousand or more rand a day, but some days you leave with nothing.”
*Not his real name