Down in the minedumps at Durban Deep, Johannesburg. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)
Johannesburg - Likwa Ndlovu died pinned by a rock that he was unable to lift with his injured hand.

The rockfall happened last Thursday night in a tunnel close to the Jerusalem shaft in Roodepoort.

Bongani Ncube saw his stepbrother’s body. The boulder, he said, had dislodged and fallen on Ndlovu’s chest, stopping him from breathing.

“He couldn’t pull that rock off him, because his hand didn’t work,” said Ncube.

Six months earlier, Likwa had injured his wrist while working underground. Then, he told his wife Caroline that he would not return to mining. He would find a safer job, away from the rockfalls and the rival gangs that steal gold.

He had tried strengthening his wrist by squeezing a tennis ball, but still it was weak. Unable to find work, Caroline explained how her husband reluctantly had returned to being a zama zama, chiselling for gold in the maze of tunnels that run beneath Durban Deep.

Four-year-old twins Nolwazi (pink top) and Nozithelo are comforted by their mother Caroline Ndlovu after they lost their father to illegal mining. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

There are no records of how many zama zamas die underground. When a miner dies in a formal mining operation, a press release is issued and an investigation initiated. But informal miners talk of seeing human bones underground.

When something goes wrong they tell how they can’t rely on rescue services or the police to help find the dead or the missing.

The Mine Rescue Services, who are better known as the proto team, say they do rescue illegal miners but often won’t take part in body recoveries if it is considered too risky.

So the zama zamas have their own proto team and it is often made up of the friends and sometimes families of the missing miners.

In August last year, a zama zama proto team had their most dramatic rescue when they were called to recover the bodies of Methembu Ncube and his friend Raphael Moyo.

They had been missing for 17 days when the 15-strong team headed down No1 shaft, near Roodepoort. As they got closer to where it was believed the bodies were, they heard shouting. Methembu Ncube was alive; he had survived by drinking his own urine. Moyo was dead.

A miner works hard in a secluded area of Durban Deep. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

But when the proto team assembled last Friday morning they knew there wouldn’t be any miracles that day.

They had to ask activist Cora Bailey to buy 90m of rope so their members could get to the body.

It was Bailey who gave Likwa the tennis ball, so he could exercise his damaged wrist. “He always used to tell me about his two beautiful daughters,” she recalled.

Ncube remembered his stepbrother as a great football lover who supported his local team, FC Highlanders, in Bulawayo before switching alliances to Orlando Pirates after he arrived in South Africa four years ago.

The two men had worked on government mines in Zimbabwe before coming to South Africa.

Here, said Ncube, they didn’t have the safety equipment they had back home, but they could make more money.

Likwa’s 4-year-old twin daughters, Nolwazi and Nozithelo, were playing outside their single-roomed home in Braamfischerville on Wednesday afternoon.

Inside, their mother Caroline sat on her bed, surrounded by friends, family and the wives of zama zamas working underground.

“Our husbands tell us that a lot of people die underground,” said Nobuhle Ndlovu, a friend of Caroline’s.

Bongani Ncube, stepbrother of deceased miner Likwe NdlovuPicture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

Likwa, Caroline explained, went underground last Wednesday with three other men. “The other guys came out, calling others for help,” she said.

The zama zamas carried Likwa’s body to the surface through the Jerusalem shaft. Wrapped tightly in hessian sack, it was left on the Roodepoort rugby field. After the miners had dispersed, someone placed a call to the police.

The fear was that the police might arrest any illegal miners found with the body.

But now a week after his death, Likwa’s friends are in a race to make money.

Likwa’s body is to be taken back to Zimbili Village A, near Bulawayo, but before his coffin can be taken across the Limpopo River into the country of his birth, his relatives need to pay the undertaker.

The amount is R13500 and his friends are working frantically, hoping to find enough gold to make the payment.

“I would say there are more than 10 men, but fewer than 15 working underground,” said Ncube. “If they don’t get the money, they have to go again.”

A week after Likwa’s friends brought him to the surface for the last time, Jerusalem shaft is still in use.

Word has got around about the latest fatality in the tunnels below this infamous shaft, but still the miners arrive with their blankets and head lamps in their search for veins of gold.

“Going underground is too risky, but we don’t have jobs,” said Ncube.