Zama zamas on the warpath: The scourge of South Africa’s underground outlaws

Jerusalema community members slept inside the Florida police station after fleeing from zama zamas engaged in turf war. Picture: Mgcina Tshwaku (with permission)

Jerusalema community members slept inside the Florida police station after fleeing from zama zamas engaged in turf war. Picture: Mgcina Tshwaku (with permission)

Published Aug 21, 2023


Communities who live on Johannesburg’s gold belt are increasingly living in fear as ruthless zama zama gangs wage war against each other for the precious metal buried deep at abandoned gold shafts dotted across the city’s south.

Heavily armed and ruthless, the gangs have caused terror and left mayhem as their increasingly brazen activities have caught the attention of South Africans.

The terror that these zama zama gangs have wrought on communities was laid bare at the weekend when residents of Florida escaped their homes and sought refuge at the local police station.

As the zama zama gangs exchanged gunfire, the local police station commander reportedly told the community he was under-resourced and had to call for back-up from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department and other police units.

The gun-fight at the weekend in Florida was apparently between the zama zamas operating in Jerusalema and the zama zamas who recently fled Zamimpilo and Riverlea after the police, at the behest of under-siege communities there, drove them out.

These grim incidents underscore an unsettling rise in the activity of zama zamas, an isiZulu term translating to ‘those who try to get something from nothing’.

These are desperate individuals who engage in the perilous and unlawful extraction of minerals, often under extraordinarily hazardous conditions.

South Africa's vast mineral wealth, which spans gold, diamonds, coal, and platinum, has always been a double-edged sword.

While providing immense resources for the country's economy, it also has drawn in a swarm of illegal miners, seeking fortune from the shafts abandoned by big mining companies.

But who precisely are the puppet masters behind this vast illegal enterprise?

Many zama zamas are former miners, victims of an economy that has been shedding jobs for decades. But the real instigators remain elusive and are likely to be part of highly organised criminal networks.

These syndicates have links that weave through the local community, the corrupt sectors of law enforcement, and even into the heart of the international black market.

The menace of illegal mining does not merely lurk beneath the earth's crust. It rears its ugly head in the very midst of communities like Angelo. The zama zamas and the locals are inextricably intertwined, a volatile mix of economic dependency and fear.

Explosives used in mining operations lead to unstable environments, causing frequent ground collapses. Water sources are poisoned, and communities are displaced. The scenario is a ticking time-bomb of potential catastrophe.

The South African government, grappling with a host of socio-economic issues, acknowledges the illegal mining crisis. Efforts to combat it include police raids and the sealing of abandoned shafts.

However, these have proven largely ineffectual due to the widespread corruption and sheer scale of the problem.

In a parliamentary debate in September last year, Minerals Resources and Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe, said that illegal mining was primarily driven by illicit financial flows and is distinct from artisanal mining, which is a legitimate activity carried out by citizens.

The government had taken steps to address the issue by closing down abandoned mines.

So far, three mines have been rehabilitated, but due to limited resources, only 40 holes can be sealed annually, meaning that it will take a long time to seal all existing mine holes.

To combat illegal mining, the government has urged mining companies to rehabilitate their mines while continuing their operations. However, many companies have not complied with this request.

In response, the government has established a multidisciplinary unit involving the police and the Department of Home Affairs to tackle the problem. The minister expressed optimism about their collaborative efforts, citing recent arrests by the police as evidence of progress in combating this serious threat to the mining sector.

While the total cost is challenging to calculate, African National Congress Member of Parliament, Mikateko Mahlaule at the same parliamentary debate said that South Africa loses well over R4 billion every year due to illegal mining, costing the country as much as it spent on constructing the Medupi and Kusile power stations.

The Minerals Council South Africa estimates the conservative losses of illegal mining in the region of R7 billion, including through non-payment of taxes and royalties.

So, how do we combat this complex problem?

Observers said that one measure could be to re-examine the country's mining policy and make it feasible for artisanal miners to operate within the law. An inclusive policy, combined with support systems, could help reduce the number of zama zamas and bring a level of control over the sector.

There is also a pressing need to address the wider socio-economic issues fuelling the rise of illegal mining. With poverty and unemployment rampant, the allure of the mines, no matter how dangerous, remains a potent magnet.

The recent tragedy at the Angelo informal settlement is another stark reminder of the devastating consequences of the zama zamas' actions. The scars of these clandestine operations run deep, marring not just the landscape, but the very fabric of South African society.

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