Johannesburg - Fears of a bloody turf war erupting again among illegal miners have gripped Ekurhuleni following the grim discovery of seven rotting bodies dumped in a field on Sunday morning.
A community member found the decomposing bodies, which were riddled with bullet holes. The corpses had already begun to suppurate when police arrived at the scene to find them under a scorching sun, with some lying face down.
They were found near a mine dump along Modderbee Street in Benoni. The mine dump is in a secluded area, with the closest neighbourhood, New Modder, about a kilometre away.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said it was possible that the men were killed by a rival illegal mining gang at one of the many disused shafts in the area. “We are not sure of the time they were killed but it could have been a couple of days ago, judging by the state of decomposition.
"They were all shot in the upper body and had already started swelling. Our concern is that the associates of the deceased might avenge their deaths, triggering another bloody turf war,” Dlamini said.
The incident has also sparked fears and worries of safety from the communities of Daveyton and New Modder.
John Kolomane, who herds cattle near the spot where the bodies were found, said the corpses could have been dumped there on Saturday night or in the early hours of on Sunday.
“My cattle graze in this area every day. I passed the spot where the bodies were found four times on Saturday and Friday, and there was nothing. And people hardly use this area as a thoroughfare - they use the road. I was shocked when I saw police there in the morning. I'm worried about my own safety now.
"I know zama zamas (illegal miners) operate in this area but I didn't know they can be this brutal,” said Kolomane.
Police turned away two men who wanted to view the bodies to check if one was that of their cousin, who works as an illegal miner.
He went missing on Thursday, and the family received a call on Saturday from his friend, saying he could have been shot by zama zamas in shaft 13.
“When my cousin's friend called, he said people were being shot at the shaft and that my cousin could also have been hit. He said there was a conflict about the changing of shifts between the group that my cousin had gone to mine with.
"We are convinced that my cousin is one of the seven bodies. Police said they will keep in touch with us,” said a relative who refused to be named.
The area was cordoned off, and members of the media weren't allowed to go anywhere near the bodies on Sunday.
DA ward 73 councillor Sinethemba Matiwane said illegal miners had become a nuisance in Benoni because of the many disused and abandoned mines in the area.
“Every now and then there is a shooting or a body is found. Our CPF (community policing forum) is working hard with the police to rid this area of zama zamas, but it is difficult because they are armed with guns and use spies to get intelligence on potential raids.
"The worst part is that with every death of an illegal miner there is a possibility of a revenge attack, and this has a knock-on effect on the community, who get caught in the middle,” said Matiwane.
He added that sewerage pipes in the area had fallen prey to illegal miners who puncture holes in the pipes and use the water for their mining activities.
There have been numerous bloody turf wars among illegal miners in Gauteng, with Ekurhuleni always having the worst of them. In one of the most devastating gun battles between gangs, 15 miners were killed when the Basotho zama zamas clashed at the Grootvlei Aurora mine in Springs in September 2015.
The gunbattle lasted for two days and the police were so intimidated that they hardly interfered. Peace prevailed only after the Lesotho government sent officials to calm the warring gangs.
In a more recent incident, four zama zamas were shot dead by police during a raid in Boksburg in November. In March, 14 illegal miners were killed during a turf-war between zama zamas from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. The two-day shootout was over a Benoni mineshaft.