Zama Zamas: a legacy of exploitation

TERRY BELL / Zama-Zamas, are not the problem claimed by the police, the government and highlighted by the media. These “illegal miners” are, for the most part, thousands of men and a very few women who risk life and limb to harvest what is left of one of the bounties of nature.

The name they have been given, Zama-Zama, also seems appropriate. It appears to have been derived from the Zulu term abazamayo, meaning those who try or strive (to achieve). And while many, even most, Zama-Zamas hail from neighbouring states, South Africans are well represented.

They are part of a legacy of the gross exploitation of the region by mining majors and governments that helped destroy subsistence peasant livelihoods. In order to avoid competition, which could have driven up wages, mining companies set up a central labour recruiting agency, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (Wenela). It recruited millions of miners at cut-rate pay from throughout the southern African region.

‘Going on shift.: White and native miners at a Rand Headgear.’ SA Mining and Engineering Journal, 1891. Image in the public domain.

This is the major reason that many of the Zama-Zamas of today hail from Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. But many are also South Africans, especially from the Eastern Cape. They, and their forefathers, learned only one skill: mining.

Today they are the pickers of the underground, scrambling after the scraps left behind after they, and those who preceded them, helped create great financial dynasties in South Africa while also enriching investors abroad. They come to seek what is left over. But unlike the pickers who raid the dustbins of suburbia, the Zama-Zamas have constantly to put their lives on the line in conditions that are barely imaginable.

Their workplaces, if and when they reach them alive, are in Stygian darkness, often thousands of metres below ground. In temperatures of 40 degrees and more, surrounded by dust borne and lung clogging humidity, the Zama-Zamas labour day in and week out for months on end before emerging with their bounty — and a hoped for pay day.

While they are underground, requiring food and water, and, when they emerge, they are the core of many township economies. For the most part, these are miners driven by desperation borne of terrible necessity; individuals who have to experience hell in the hope of perhaps achieving sufficiency for self and family. Having little or no other skills, they join what is, in effect, an army of Zama-Zamas.

“Army” is an appropriate term, since thousands of workers are involved. Many were laid off from mines over the past 30 years following the large-scale closure of deep-level commercial mines and mine shafts when mining on an industrial scale became uneconomic. The gold mining legacy of more than a century in Gauteng alone means that there are thousands of basically accessible abandoned shafts.

‘Human moles follow the compressed air drill – developing a drift in the greatest gold bearing region of the world, Crown Mine, Johannesburg, S. Africa’. US Library of Congress. Image in the public domain.

Mining companies were supposed to rehabilitate mining areas no longer in use, to close off shafts and dangerous ingress to underground workings. They did not do so. In fact, many simply departed, leaving the scraps of nature’s mineral bounty available to any who dared run the human and legal risks involved.

Among those who dare are miners left with unpaid wages and who never received their promised provident or pensions funds. Although many older men retreated to the rural homes from which they had been recruited, to die painful deaths, suffering from the lung disease contracted by their labour, the tradition of mine work remains.

Informal mining also has a history. Artisanal mining, using basic tools and methods to extract minerals from the earth, has functioned in South Africa for centuries. It continued in the modern era despite the close collusion between successive governments and mining companies that criminalised mineral mining and trade to all but major operators and licensed companies.

It is the criminalisation of informal mining, rather than its regulation, that has created opportunities for criminals. A vast and labyrinthine web of often brutal corruption has emerged with gangs now controlling most of the surface workings of informal mining and the production of the workers underground.

According to researcher David van Wyk of the Benchmarks Foundation, the gangs are also involved in human trafficking. They recruit young men in rural areas with promises of jobs, men who end up as virtual captives being trained and used as Zama-Zamas or having to act as “mules” carrying supplies to the miners underground.

Vicious turf wars between gangs have also erupted. This seems to have been the case in the recent shootouts in Riverlea, near Johannesburg. There, it was claimed, gangs were “heavily armed”, using R5 assault rifles.

Zama zama spaza shop in Soweto … zama zamas make a significant contribution to township economies. Flickr / image in public domain.

Police have now arrested nearly 100 men apparently involved in “illegal mining” and police minister Bheki Cele, claims that a Zama-Zama “kingpin” is in custody. However, the implication that the police are now getting “illegal mining” under control is nonsense, given the sheer scale of informal mining, especially in the goldfields of Gauteng and the Free State.

There are also many questions asked by researchers such as Van Wyk that remain unanswered. For example: who supplies the weapons and ammunition used by the gangs? And who supplies the large quantities of mercury used to leach out gold, and the bottled gas used in the process? That would be before even asking who buys and sells the gold.

Instead, already used and often abused workers, most merely trying to put food on the table and risking their lives to do so, are again targeted.


ABOUT THE IMAGES: There are many images of Zama Zamas on the internet, but none are free for use, or in the public domain. Instead, we’re publishing two historical images which remind us that Africans from across the entire southern Africa have worked — mostly for pitiful wages — in South Africa’s  formal mining sector for more than a century. Featured image: South African gold miners, circa 1890-1923, Carpenter Collection, US Library of Congress. Image in the public domain.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap