Gold diggers, gangs and booze

2013-03-10 10:00

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Tinashe’s* grand house along the main road in Matsulu is among the few with a remote controlled security gate. Through palisade sections in his high-brick wall, one can catch a glimpse of his white Range Rover, worth about R500 000.

The Zimbabwe national is known around the township outside Nelspruit as the “money maker”.

He trades in gold mined illegally by hundreds of men in abandoned shafts in nearby Barberton.

But these men also dig illegally in operating mines – owned by groups like Shanduka and Pan African Resources – in the area.

Tinashe’s bling life is the envy of his down-at-heel township neighbours.

Although they cannot say for sure how much money he makes, those close to him say he has a “meter” – township slang for a million rand – at any given time.

He also owns a second house in another section of the township and drives a collection of luxury cars including a Mini Cooper and a VW Scirocco.

Rumour has it that he buys cars for some of his many girlfriends, one of whom drives a Peugeot cabriolet.

Predictably, perhaps, Tinashe declined an interview.

“How did you get my number?” he demanded, before promising to phone back.

He never did, and switched his phone off.

But he’s not the only illegal gold trader around.

Others like him are known in their communities for dealing in gold but they somehow avoid jail because they have the means to pay their way out of trouble.

Tinashe was arrested last year but was out in no time.

Those close to him say his money enabled him to smuggle a cellphone into his cell and he kept running his business from jail.

“That guy gives R100 000 to police and they leave him (alone),” says Sibusiso*, a soft-spoken young man in his early 20s. He is an illegal miner who exchanges his gold for cash through Tinashe.

He says: “One day he showed me the boot of his Mini Cooper, which was full of cash. That was the first time in my life I saw such an amount of cash. He’s the kind of a man who asks you how much you want and just gives you the cash whether it’s R4 000 or R10 000.”

Tinashe and others like him buy raw gold mined in abandoned mine shafts.

The miners also work in operating mines including Lily Mine, Fair View, Sheba and Consort.

The men who work illegally underground risk their lives to make far less money than those to whom they sell.

Not only are they at risk of rockfalls and shaft collapses, but they also fall victim to gang turf wars waged underground.

Deaths and murders go unreported, and just how many lose their lives is unknown.

According to Barberton police spokesperson, Constable Mxolisi Nyundu, more than 50 illegal miners have been arrested since January, and between two and four are arrested each day.

He says: “It’s difficult to police them because they work underground. We get to arrest them as and when the mine security guards find them.”

The middlemen sell this gold through their connections on the black market.

The raw gold then gets taken to Joburg, where it is sold.

But the illegal miners don’t know what happens from there.

Sibusiso says local miners do not have connections on the black market.

“We have no choice but to exchange our gold with Zimbabweans as all the middlemen are from there.”

However, he claims to have struck it lucky himself, once making R320 000 from a handful of gold he dug up one week back in 2009.

He took City Press to Sinqobile, a settlement of low-cost government homes outside Barberton, to point out a car wash where exchanges between the diggers and the middlemen take place.

The area looks poor, but that is where you get to see beautiful cars and men enjoying their booze.

“You would think it’s a normal car wash. (But) that’s where we do business,” says Sibusiso.

According to Professor Robert Thornton, a Wits University anthropologist who is also researching illegal gold mining in Barberton, dealers like Tinashe had many uses for their cash.

“They usually spend it and it’s gone. Some of them are more discreet and spend it on alcohol and women. I know two of them who fund churches. Some of their money goes to sangomas and prophets to protect them,” he says.

Thornton confirms that the middlemen hailed from countries such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where illegal gold mining is big business.

Although mining companies have beefed up their security and have clamped down on theft over the past few years, the illegal miners still find new ways of getting their gold.

Qwabe*, another illegal miner, says they bribe security guards who then give them work uniforms to mine in, then they look like employees.

And getting miners like Sibusiso to stop will be a very difficult task.

“I know all the routes underground like the palm of my hand,” says Qwabe.

“I enter through an old shaft and go until I reach places where mines are extracting gold. The miners get scared but do nothing to us.”

As long as Sibusiso and Qwabe get the precious metal, Tinashe’s life will remain bling.

* Not their real names

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