The zama-zama miners are capitalist entrepreneurs

2014-02-26 10:00

The recent rescue and subsequent arrest of zama-zama (have a go) miners from an abandoned mine shaft near Benoni on the East Rand made headlines around the world.

So did the deaths several days later of two other such miners at another nearby abandoned shaft.

The publicity was assured because the media was on the spot and televised images were readily available.

As a result, these incidents were given greater news coverage than the deaths of more than 100 “illegal miners” in Welkom four years ago.

The Welkom group was working in a functioning mine and was obviously employed by a gang/company that had connections that enabled “illegals”, in the overalls and helmets of conventional miners, to descend by the same winched cage that carried “legitimate” workers.

Just how many of these “employed zama-zama” operate in this way in remote tunnels of established deep-level mines is not known, but they are almost certainly a minority.

Most among the thousands who live a molelike existence, spending weeks and sometimes months beneath the earth’s surface, operate in shallower, long-abandoned mines.

They are the real zama-zama, and mine officials and security personnel estimate that there may now be as many of them as there are formally employed miners.

The publicity machinery of the mining houses dubs these miners “pirates”, “thieves” and “illegals”. Yet the zama-zama should be seen as entrepreneurs who “identify and start a business venture, source and organise the required resources, and take both the risks and rewards associated with the venture”.

“We don’t condone illegal acts, but the zama-zama are operating in line with the capitalist ethos,” says Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven. This is a view shared in the union movement and among the poor communities those miners call home.

That the work is hard and extremely dangerous goes without saying; that it is very poorly paid is largely because it is not accepted, regulated or legal.

As human rights lawyer Richard Spoor points out, South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where it is illegal, privately, to own and mine raw gold or rough diamonds. This, Spoor says, is a ruling that means the state — and, therefore, the taxpayer — foots the bill for much mining-product security.

Forced into illegality, the zama-zama have to deal with the criminal underworld when they surface with scraps of gold.

With the price of gold at more than R13?200 an ounce, there is much profit to be made if gold can be bought for R500 an ounce or less.

With no questions asked by the underworld bosses whose underlings operate illegal smelters, township gangs now prey on the zama-zama, robbing them when they surface.

In the most recent case in Benoni, it seems that robbers, perhaps fearful of the number of miners emerging from the abandoned shaft, may have driven back those they had robbed and then sealed the shaft entrance with rocks. When rescue workers arrived, most of the zama-zama apparently refused to emerge.

Among those who remained below ground, fearful of arrest, may have been some who were aware of linked diggings, stopes and tunnels through which they could travel to emerge perhaps many kilometres from their entry point.

As retrenched miners, many of the zama-zama are well acquainted with large sections of the labyrinth of quite shallow underground passageways that extends across the Witwatersrand, from Roodepoort in the west to Springs in the east.

Veteran miners make up the core of this self-employed army of underground workers.

They do not see themselves as criminals. Many argue that the real criminals are those in the government and mining companies who wrecked the environment, and used and abused workers for 120 years of basically unregulated mining.

And they accuse individuals such as Khulubuse Zuma and his partners of being latter-day pirates for stripping the Aurora gold mine of its assets and leaving thousands of miners to starve without jobs or wages.

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