The illegal mining sector in South Africa has a reputation for being a deadly game, but to many economically sidelined skilled mine workers it is the only option they have.
City Press met up with a bona fide illegal miner, Juda*, who despite having reasonable prospects of employment, opted to join an illegal mining syndicate and rose up the ranks in the black market.
The meeting, held at a discreet establishment in the heart of the fast-growing town of Burgersfort, proves to be an eye-opening insight into the world of illegal chrome mining.
“Look chief, I was born and bred here. The first time I saw a top-of-the-range German machine [Mercedes-Benz] was with mine owners from Jozi. Naturally, I wanted to be like them. I went through the system and qualified, only to find that you need connections more than papers, so I connected myself,” he said.
Juda holds an engineering degree from a top university in Gauteng, but has never worked as an engineer – except as an intern in Rustenburg, the other end of the platinum belt.
He claims he was first exposed to illegal mining by a clique of Chinese nationals who taught him the ropes, and he has never looked back.
He now considers it a job as he can afford to put food on the table for his family. As he takes a sip from his glass of expensive whisky, he explains that he has only been on a mining site several times – when one of his drivers was not available and when he was tipped by his police contacts that the area would be raided the following day.
“I took the truck and went to collect myself. That damn trip cost me thousands just to get to Jozi,” he said.
Transporting is where he really makes his money, and he reckons that is where real money lies with minimal risk.
Though he is cagey about the specifics of his buyers. He generally refers to them as “Chinese” and repeatedly mentions that he does not care where the minerals end up after he delivers, although he claims to have an idea.
The chrome sold is fairly low grade, but there is money to be made because the prices are not market related.
Juda grew up in a family of six siblings. His mother became a domestic worker after being retrenched at the nearby Penge mine.
“My mother was a breadwinner and she got sick because of the asbestos and they fired her,” he said.
There are a lot of instances in this area of mine workers falling sick because of the mining activities, and the mines later closing shop and moving on to greener pastures without taking responsibility, leaving behind a trail of death caused by their activities.
Detailing his upbringing, it is clear he resents mines and maybe that is the reason he never bothered to knock on a mine door looking for a job.
“Why should I go there [to ask for a job] because they hire people from their other mines in other provinces? Besides, I do what they do, just on a smaller scale,” he said with pride.
The area is notorious for mine-related mass protests and lately the main issue has been that mines import labour instead of employing locals.
Juda is all too familiar with the mines in the area, and said he started out in platinum. The scarcity of buyers forced him to move to chrome, which he said has been good to him.
According to him, mine dumps are lucrative and the chain starts with the mine’s own officials who smooth things with the police, sometimes by employing a relative or two, and also give access to buying in Gauteng’s black market.
“Everyone gets paid, so all is good.”
Asked why he would risk going to jail rather than earning an honest living, he said: “My mother did that and it didn’t end well. I once tried with the DMR [the department of mineral resources], but by the time you get even a prospecting licence you would have paid maybe R2 million in bribes along the way, while these big companies from outside get it easy.”
According to him, the risk is worth every effort because “no mine owner has ever been to jail. If I get arrested then it means I’m too poor.”
He also alleges that, besides the red tape involved in mining, it’s easier to form networks that include mine officials than comply through government.
As a father of several children with different mothers and former ANC youth league activist in the area, he feels strongly about the mining industry in Sekhukhune.
The area is the richest end of the platinum belt yet one of the poorest municipalities in the country, a contradiction he strongly describes as “economic rape”.
“There’s no politician in this country who does not have mining interests, but none in Sekhukhune. This is where the game is because Rustenburg is overmined,” he said, name-dropping a number of prominent government leaders who he claims have interests in the local mines, even through section 21 companies.
In his justification, Juda said in his decade-long career of choice, he has never had to deal with an accident casualty and said there’s no mine with that kind of safety record.
*Not his real name* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER