An illegal miner sings gospel songs near the body of a fellow miner. Picture: Itumeleng English

Immigrant miners should also be protected by our constitution, which covers all who work and live in SA, says Mohamed Motala.

Johannesburg - In the past few weeks, a terrible tragedy has been unfolding in Joburg. It is estimated that 100 miners have been trapped underground. Their bodies are being recovered one by one. To date 24 bodies have been rescued from a mine near Roodepoort and an unknown number from a mine near Benoni.

Nobody knows the number of men and women still trapped or dead underground because the work they do is considered illegal. So the authorities have no proper records of the numbers of people involved.

The depth of the tragedy was illustrated last week by a woman reporting that she was happy that her 18-year-old brother’s body had been found, but at the same time, she remains anxious because he went underground with five other family members who had not surfaced, nor had their bodies been recovered. There is little hope now that they will be found alive.

In 2010, when 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile, the incident and successful rescue of the miners who had been trapped for two months became an international event with television networks dramatising the daring rescue.

For the poor miners trapped in Joburg, there will be no such rescue, nor is the media’s attention likely to be diverted from the Pretoria High Court where the Oscar Pistorius case has become the object of their fascination.

Zama Zamas are miners who operate outside the regulated system of gold mining and do so independently. Given the high levels of unemployment and poverty, hundreds of men descend into old and dangerous disused mines and spend weeks in dark and dangerous tunnels removing gold-bearing ore that finds its way into the market.

South African mines are notoriously unsafe with high levels of fatalities. This is partly attributed to the archaic methods of mining that have not changed over the past 150 years. Gold mining is carried out by thousands of semi-literate and illiterate miners who use explosives to blast rocks into smaller pieces that are then carried to the surface where the gold is extracted. Small groups of Zama Zama miners use the same technique with little safety or communication technology at their disposal.

So their level of danger is considerably higher in an already dangerous system.

However, some of the so-called illegal mining activity also takes place at functional mines in the shadows and away from the scrutiny of mine management. In a 2007 report, the Institute for Security Studies estimated that 10 percent of all gold mined in South Africa is stolen each year.

The government estimates the value of the gold theft business at R5.6 billion a year.

Some estimates indicate that the numbers of workers involved in these operations equals the numbers of those employed formally.

Recently there have been reports of mining becoming increasingly violent with shootings taking place above and below ground. Mine security personnel report that they feel powerless in the face of what appears to be organised activity.

In February, reports emerged of miners being trapped below the surface on the West Rand when a rival group stole their gold and trapped them underground.

About 30 miners were rescued, but they indicated that more than 100 were still trapped below them. Official rescue teams initially tried to reach them but soon gave up, stating that dangerous underground gases and unstable rock prevented them from doing so. The relatives and friends of the trapped miners then had no alternative but to go down the mines to retrieve the bodies themselves.

Slowly, over days, reports emerged of bloated bodies with blackened faces being removed by teams of family members. This new rescue effort was launched days after the official rescue teams had left.

A woman’s body has also been retrieved indicating that women also undertake this type of mining. The rescuers have neither protective gear nor proper equipment – just hammers and chisels, as they bring up bodies covered in blood and wrapped in plastic sacks used for packaging mealie-meal.

To cope with the extreme conditions underground, the rescuers say that they drink fresh milk and have enlisted the services of a sangoma (traditional healer) who prays above ground so that the dangerous gases and smoke from underground fires are dispersed and that they may find the bodies of their loved ones.

What is shocking about all this is that there is no national outcry or response from the authorities, mining companies or South Africans in general. Media reports of the deaths of Zama Zama miners are relegated to small news items in the inner sections of some local newspapers.

In 2012, when 34 miners were killed at Marikana, there was a huge response from all South Africans. Political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Workers and Socialist Party were quick to take up the cause of the mineworkers’ families. The outcry resulted in a commission of inquiry being set up to examine the killings. No such thing has happened in the case of the incidents in which the zama zamas have been killed or remain trapped.

Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that many of these are poor, black Zimbabwean immigrants who are not South Africans and not important enough for political parties because it is an election year and the misery of people is an easy place to organise votes only if they are South Africans.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cosatu have also had a minimal response to the deaths of the Zama Zama miners and have not publicly campaigned to have the miners rescued.

At its congress last year in which the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) resolved to focus its energies on rebuilding the labour movement, Numsa recognised the need to connect with poor workers that have been abandoned by Cosatu and its historically big mining affiliate, the NUM.

The congress realised that realignment is needed in the organising and recognition of who it should focus on if it wants to really represent the interests of the working class.

Some of the congress resolutions recognise that alongside fighting for decent work for formally and informally organised workers, entrepreneurial workers who live in the shadows of formality in precarious jobs need to be recognised and organised if a better future is to be realised for all.

The government and the mining houses have long since abandoned the cause of poor workers.

It is up to ordinary South Africans to take a stand and demand that the lives of poor immigrant miners receive attention so that they too can be protected by our constitution, which covers all who work and live in this country, not only those who can vote.

* Mohamed Motala is executive director of the Community Agency for Social Enquiry. This article also appears on the website of the The SA Civil Society Information Service.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star