WELKOM // No one knows how many corpses lie deep in the mine shafts and tunnels under the rolling countryside of Welkom. The town, which is located about 250km south-west of Johannesburg, lies on the Free State goldfield, which is rivalled only in scale by the neighbouring Witwatersrand Reef of Gauteng, the greatest gold-bearing deposit on earth and the source of an estimated 40 per cent of the precious metal ever mined.
Wars have been fought over South Africa's mineral deposits and the continent's biggest economy built on them, but after more than a century of exploitation they are beginning to tire; the country has slipped to become the world's third-largest producer. As yields have fallen, some mines have become uneconomic and operating companies have begun to close the shafts, while others have been shut for safety reasons.
But there are still glinting specks of the yellow metal to be found deep underground, and in a country where crime is commonplace and poverty even more so, desperation, greed and gold are a powerfully tempting combination. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are involved in a huge - and potentially lethal - criminal enterprise to steal it. Operating with minimal safety precautions and no regulatory inspections, they spend weeks, even months, at a time underground, bribing their way past guards and into lifts, breaking into sealed-off sections of the mines, and using illegal explosives to blast their way even deeper.
In the labyrinthine network of tunnels, which extends for 50km under the highveld plateau of the Free State province, they are able to break rocks down underground, grinding them to powder in makeshift mills made from old gas bottles, and using mercury to bond the gold into an amalgam, which is then smuggled to the surface. There it is melted to extract the metal for sale. With much lower costs than the commercial companies, and a willingness to take risks no responsible firm would countenance, they can turn a profit from rocks bearing a mere two or three grammes of gold per tonne.
The system is huge. Some of the illegal miners, known as zama-zamas, work for criminal gangs, while others are self-employed. Some legal mine employees sell them food, cigarettes and alcohol at an enormous profit - a pack of 30 cigarettes costs about 150 rand underground, almost Dh73.4 - while family members say that there are even mobile telephone relay points in the mines that allow them to keep in touch with their loved ones.
But although it is potentially highly lucrative, it also carries extraordinary risks. About two weeks ago - it is not exactly clear when - something went wrong somewhere connected to Harmony Gold's 1.4km-deep Eland shaft, just outside Welkom. Since then the mine, where operations ceased and were switched to a maintenance basis a few years ago, has been yielding a new and fateful product - the remains of dead zama-zamas.
By the weekend 81 bodies had been recovered, with authorities describing it as the worst accident of its kind in recent memory. From the mine's own gas readings it is believed a fire broke out in an illegal mining operation. It is suspected that most of the dead were killed by gas and smoke inhalation, although conclusive post-mortem findings have yet to be obtained. With rescuers and mine operators refusing to enter the abandoned sectors for their own safety, and the zama-zamas themselves facing arrest if they are discovered, surviving illegals are recovering their colleagues' remains and leaving them in official parts of the mining complex, from where they are brought to ground level, sometimes after tip-offs in anonymous telephone calls.
"We sometimes get dead bodies on stations," said a miner who requested anonymity, adding that levels 45, 47 and 49 were the most common dumping spots. South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers has demanded Harmony Gold, the world's fifth-biggest gold producer, take responsibility for the disaster, accusing it of "inaction". "The NUM believes that if the company has had good security on its operations these deaths could have been avoided," said its media head, Lesiba Seshoka, describing the victims as "so-called 'illegal' mineworkers".
But Marian van der Walt, the firm's spokesman, dismissed the allegation as "absolute bulldust". "This is similar to an ATM bomber killing himself in the process and wanting to keep the bank liable," she said. The fact that the miners are illegal, are committing trepass when they are underground and face theft charges if they are found in possession of gold, mean that the details of exactly what happened, or the number of casualties, are unknown.
"We have no idea how many more will be brought to the stations," she said. "It's highly likely there could be more bodies." Similarly, it is impossible to estimate the number of illegal miners operating on Harmony Gold's or other companies' properties - which are often, in any case, interlinked, so that the zama-zamas could enter through one firm's shaft, work in a second's mine, and exit through a third.
But Harmony Gold is making a concerted effort to try to clamp down on workers who are aiding and abetting the illegals, with 77 of its employees and 45 contractors arrested and either suspended or dismissed so far this year. "It just seems to be almost impossible to try and control these people," said Ms van der Walt of the zama-zamas. "It's very lucrative business for these guys. They make lots of money and the risk of losing their lives doesn't weigh up to the chance of getting all that money."
For poverty-stricken, township-dwelling South Africans, the sums involved are vast. In one month underground, a zama-zama can make a minimum of R40,000 - about US$5,000 and almost the average national annual income. Usually they make more, sometimes several times over. In Welkom, the centre of zama-zama activity is to be found at the back of Thabong, a township just outside the city. There, Hostel G looks like any other example of the type of accommodation built for migrant workers in the years of apartheid; block after block of single-storey concrete rooms, with poor facilities and only dirt roads running between them.
But the children scavenging through piles of rubbish wear miner's helmets while doing so, and occasionally a gleaming four-wheel-drive vehicle rolls through the dusty alleys. Some of its inhabitants have made millions of rand over the years. Given the illegal nature of the activities, no one was willing to be referred to by their real name. "I'm worried because my husband has been there [almost] 12 months," said a woman identified as Jacqueline Serake. "I'm always worried, when is my man coming back?"
But she has been told her husband, Anthony, is still alive and will be returning soon, having gone underground in August. It is his third time working as a zama-zama, after two shorter stints of about two months each. If his gold is successfully smuggled out, and he is not arrested, they will be able to buy a new car and a small house - for cash - with his profits. Kennedy Khumalo, who also lives in Hostel G, said the least that a zama-zama could make a month was R40,000, "tax-free. For others it's even more. There are people who are driving R250,000 cars within only two months. It takes them only six months to buy a Hummer 3."
Even those who are working for a criminal boss "must get something for himself", he said. Those who come back after extended stays sometimes have problems with their eyesight, he said, but the rewards are such that people come from across southern Africa to try to slip into the mines, sometimes sleeping outdoors near the hostel for two or three months before they can be taken in. It costs R2,500 for a zama-zama to bribe their way underground, and most items cost at least six times as much as on the surface; R100 for a loaf of bread, R250 for a packed lunch.
Among the recruits most in demand by the gangs are unemployed former legal mineworkers. But not all are tempted. Back at the Eland shaft, across the road from the premises, a few people scrape a living breaking up the crumbling concrete remains of the former mining hostel. They swing sledgehammers to reach the steel rods inside so that they might sell them for scrap. It is back-breakingly hard work and their income is but a tiny fraction of what the zama-zamas make.
Even so, Thabiso Tau, 40, who was a mining employee until he lost his job in the late 1990s, has refused offers to join the ranks of the underground illegals. "They don't have permission to go so I didn't want to do it," he said. "I can imagine what it's like. Nobody checks on you, you just go. "It's dangerous. They have got no safety equipment. You are going to die there." firstname.lastname@example.org