Update: The number of illegal miners killed during an exchange of fire with the police in the North West has gone up from six to eight after two more bodies were discovered at the scene, police spokesperson Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone confirmed.
At least eight illegal miners, commonly known as zama zamas, were killed during an exchange of fire with police in North West on Wednesday. It is believed that they were driven to the surface by dehydration and hunger.
Police said that, together with private security officials, they were attacked and shot at by a group of about 300 zama zamas who were trying to force their way underground to deliver food and water to their colleagues.
Mokgwabone said the owners of the mine had sealed off a ventilation shaft that the illegal miners had been using as entry and exit points. The mining company made the move in an attempt to clamp down on illegal mining activities.
“The action effectively stopped the supply of food and water to the zama zamas. Consequently, some of the illegal miners voluntarily, and due to shortage of food and water supplies, used explosives to open a hole and started to exit the shaft on Saturday,” Mokgwabone said.
On Wednesday night, social media was flooded with voice messages, videos and text messages warning communities around Orkney, near Klerksdorp, to avoid one of the roads cutting through the area close to the mine shaft because of the gun battle.
Videos widely shared on social media contained audio of what sounded like automatic rifle fire, and at least one showed, from a distance, a throng of men believed to be zama zamas fleeing amid the sound of gunfire.
“More than 500 illegal miners had already exited the shaft on Sunday. They were thoroughly processed, including being medically examined for dehydration, before being released. Some were treated by paramedics, while a few others were taken to hospital,” Mokgwabone said.
Some of them were offered food by the police while they were being processed.
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The zama zamas were released because there is no clear legislation in place to charge them and they have often only been charged with trespassing.
According to Mokgwabone, no zama zamas made their way aboveground on Monday and Tuesday.
He said that on Wednesday afternoon, as some of them started exiting, they attacked the police, who retaliated, leading to eight zama zamas being killed.
“Several food parcels and two firearms were found at the crime scene,” Mokgwabone said.
Police said 35 suspects were arrested near the No 6 Lawrence Park shaft in Orkney on Wednesday. They were charged with attempted murder, causing an explosion, malicious damage to property and conspiracy to commit a crime.
This was the same area where some of the 20 decomposed bodies of zama zamas were discovered just over three months ago.
They were reportedly killed in a gas explosion underground, and their colleagues brought their bodies up in makeshift body bags made of plastic. Some had their names and contact details of their next of kin attached to them.
Their bodies were intentionally left in areas where they would be easily discovered so that their families could bury them.
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The ANC’s chief whip in Klerksdorp, Khaya Ndincede, told City Press in August that illegal mining was a serious challenge in the area.
“The zama zamas are terrorising people in the township. In some cases, they buy items from tuck shops and taverns, only to come back later and rob the shop owners of their money, alcohol and cigarettes. Sometimes they even hijack the businesses and throw the owners out,” he said.
“They’ve also been linked to many cases of rape and murder. We’ve reached the stage where our children walk past dead bodies on their way to school. The zama zamas sometimes fight between themselves as rival groups, and when they do, the community ends up as the victim.”
Meanwhile, Mokgwabone said Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) officials were expected to return to the scene on Thursday to continue to investigate the killing of the eight illegal miners.
“The provincial [police] commissioner, Lieutenant General Sello Kwena, condemned the carelessness of the alleged illegal miners and indicated that no amount of force would deter law enforcement from doing their work.
“He also urged members of the community to remain calm and work together with the police in ensuring that those who brazenly commit crimes, including illegal mining, are arrested,” Mokgwabone said.
He added no further incidents were reported overnight, but the police were maintaining their presence in the area.