Every day, more than fifty thousand young men risk their lives in crumbling mine shafts controlled by gun-wielding gangs to dig for gold in places that are no longer profitable for the mining industry. Who are South African Zama Zamas? Why they risk their lives? Where the root of this problem lies?

What is gold, and why it is so expensive?

Gold (Lat. Aurum) is a chemical element with the symbol Au, atomic number 79, atomic mass 196.967 u, and density 19.3 thousand. kg/m3. It belongs to the transition metals that are found among the copper elements (silver, roentgen, and copper). It is relatively soft and pliable compared to other metals. In its natural form, it occurs as nuggets, veins, or alluvial deposits. Gold, classified as a precious metal, has always been a sought-after and valued raw material. This is a reason why the ore was used as parity in monetary trade until the 1970s. After replacing the gold parity with fiat money, half of the mined gold is used in jewelry and 10% in industry. Gold fulfills its role as an investment of capital but also finds application in dentistry and electronics (due to the high degree of electrical conductivity). The highest fineness of gold is 999.9, which is used for investment and allocation purposes. Despite deviating from the gold parity, many of the World’s largest economies keep their reserves in gold bars. Moreover, the ore is mostly resistant to fluctuations in world prices and remains stable in the event of crises.

Gold exists in the World in two forms: as primary and secondary deposits. The first of them can be found in the form of veins in effusive rocks (formed as a result of the lava solidification after the eruption), as well as in metamorphic rocks (i.e. those whose structure has changed due to the influence of an external factor, e.g. temperature or water). The second category, secondary deposits, are remnants of the destruction of previous primary deposits and can be found in fragile rocks such as sandstones, gravel and conglomerates. This form of gold is found in alluvial sands.

In South Africa, almost 90% of gold resources are located in primary deposits near Witwatersrand.

Who are Zama Zamas?

Zama Zamas are named after the Zulu term meaning “These who try to get them something from nothing.” More than 50 000 people are mining in 6000 abandoned mines scattered across the country. Zama Zamas are mostly young, unemployed men who were previously working in the gold industry. Without alternatives, they are forced to dig in high temperatures in wobbly corridors filled with toxic fumes to make a living. They are exposed to dehydration, gas poisoning, extremely dangerous mine accidents, and gang fights. After the whole heavy day in the mine shaft, they are receiving just a pinch of the true value of the gold they extract from the deposits – more than 40% goes to intermediates and local bosses.  But before immersing into a detailed landscape, let’s find out how the recession of South Africa’s mining industry impacted people in ZA and why it was just the first chapter in what has since developed into a bloody and brutal illicit scramble for gold.

South Africa gold industry recession

South Africa is the second-largest economy (based on GDP) in Africa and first in Sub-Saharian Africa. The country has built its burgeoning economy on its mining trade over the past few decades. In South Africa, there are one of the largest ores of platinum, vanadium, coal, diamonds, gold, and all of the other minerals in the World. For the past few decades, the country has led in gold mining, but the number of active mines has decreased in the last ten years. In 2019, South Africa extracted over 110 tonnes of gold which gave them 9th place in the World (compared to 383 tonnes extracted by China, which is currently leading the ranking).

Source: Gov ZA, https://www.mineralscouncil.org.za/sa-mining/gold

In South African, gold resources are located in only three provinces: Free state, West Rand, and Gauteng, but gold veins are around 400 kilometers long. The Witwatersrand region is the largest gold surface in the World. Under the sold rocks, there are more than 70 000 tonnes of gold.

Due to 120 years of exploration in underground mines near Witwatersrand gold deposits are close to 4000 meters under the surface. The temperature of the rocks at that depth is around 50 Celsius degrees, which caused cost increases (special equipment, work in difficult conditions, machinery transportation, and maintenance). Between 2000 and 2008, more than 50% of active mines began to be unprofitable. The situation was even worsened by the 2008 crisis, which caused a drop in the price of gold and layoffs of the workforce. Today it is estimated that almost 75% of gold mines are unprofitable. The result is large layoffs in the mining industry. At least 70,000 people have lost jobs in the last five years, which is almost 40% of South African’s industry. Currently, 95,130 people work in gold mining, but this number is falling every year. It is similar to the production of gold in South Africa. In 2019, the country mined the fewest gold in the last 20 years. (see graph below)

Figure Mine production in 1990-2018

The downward trend that can be observed in gold production is also related to the lack of finding new deposits. Even 30 years ago, finding a deposit of 50 million tons was something normal, and in modern times, seeing 15 million tons is rare.

In the 1990s, South Africa was responsible for 30% of the World’s gold supply. In 2002, supply decreased to 15% and currently amounts to 4.2 %. Nevertheless, gold remains a strategic product for the country. It accounts for 14% of exports and is responsible for a significant part of GDP.

First Zama Zamas and their veins of danger

The unexpectedly rapid depletion of the country’s gold capacity in 2000–2008 led to a mass exodus of mining companies that left their facilities abandoned but still just about operational, extending an opportunity to a few enterprising individuals who would become the first Zama Zamas. The group’s collective output is estimated to be worth 21bn rands a year ($920m), with the majority of the gold mined ending up in Dubai.1

The experience of an illegal gold miner in South Africa is more often than not a harrowing one. Every year, more than 300 artisanal gold miners are reported dead due to collapsing tunnels. The numbers are vastly underestimated because most of the accidents are hidden from the public, most of Zama Zamas are undocumented migrants. The second problem is illegal gangs which often rob miners of their daily haul. They are known in the area for their proclivity towards violence — in the last four years, the groups that hound the Zama Zamas were responsible for the deaths of more than 200 illegal miners. In 2020 nine Zama Zamas were stoned to death in an illegal mine by the criminal group in Matholeville, Roodepoort.2


Is there any way out?

The situation of Zama Zamas appears to be out of government control, which is terrifying. Fortunately, according to experts, it can be resolved. Specialists from around the globe suggest that illegal mining in South Africa should be considered to be artisanal mining within large-scale mines, not separate from them. Alan Martin, a technical adviser, and investigative researcher for Enact, specializing in small-scale gold and diamond supply chains, proposed solutions such as:

  • Issuing an industrial concession for artisanal and small-scale miners, which let the government know where they mine, what techniques they can use, to whom they may sell the gold, and when they must vacate the property.
  • Providing skill training to small-scale miners such as safe mining practices and the use of explosives and mercury.
  • Creating a legislative amendment that should also tighten the licensing requirements for scrap-metal dealers and gold-export permit holders.
  • Centralizing the system regulating the purchase and processing of precious metals would significantly contribute to including Zama Zamas in the legal supply chain. That will let gold miners get the real value of the gold they dig.

As the country’s shrinking gold resources and reserves make industrial mining less economically viable in the long term, artisanal mining in abandoned and ownerless mines could be a game-changer for South Africa’s disused gold mines. Government should reconsider the legalization of the whole process.

Author: Mateusz Klipo

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