Inside Labour: Zama-zama - illegals or entrepreneurs?

Inside Labour: Zama-zama - illegals or entrepreneurs?

2014-02-21 07:13

THE RESCUE and subsequent arrest of zama-zama — (those prepared to) “have a go” — miners from an abandoned mine shaft near the East Rand city of Benoni made world headlines.  As did the deaths several days later of two other such miners at another nearby abandoned shaft.  

The widespread publicity was assured because the media was on the spot and televised images were readily available.  As a result, these incidents were given greater — and more dramatic — news coverage than the deaths of more than 100 “illegal miners” in Welkom four years ago.

The Welkom group were a slightly different form of zama-zama and died far from the media spotlight, deep below the earth. They were working in a functioning mine and were obviously employed by a gang/company/group 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 into the bowels of the earth.

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 follow a mole-like existence, spending weeks and sometimes months beneath the earth’s surface, operate in shallower, long abandoned workings. 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, in a classic sense, be seen as entrepreneurs, people 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 widely within the union movement and among the usually poor communities that are home to those who have mastered the dank and dangerous underworld in order to eke out a living.

That the work is hard and extremely dangerous, goes without saying;  that it is very poorly paid is largely a result of it not being accepted and regulated, but having been declared illegal.

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 adds, 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 the scraps of gold they have hewn out of the rocks below. “It’s all a bit like prohibition in the United States,” says Spoor.

With the price of gold at more than $1 200 (R13 200) a Troye ounce, there is great 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, alerted by community members, arrived on the scene, 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 slither, crawl and walk 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 2km-wide 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, operating mainly on the Witwatersrand and in the even older diggings in the mountains around Barberton in Mpumalanga. It is an almost exclusively male preserve, with the veterans training younger unemployed men to “harvest this bounty of the earth”.

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

And they point to individuals such as Khulubuse Zuma and his partners as latter day pirates for having stripped the Aurora gold mine of assets and left thousands of miners without wages, to starve.

- Fin24

* Terry Bell is a political, economic and labour analyst, you can follow him on twitter @telbelsa. Views expressed are his own.

Join the debate: Should the government pass legislation to allow mining communities to “harvest this bounty of the earth” to help boost entrepreneurship? Tell us what you think below, on Twitter use #Zama or mail us.

  • winston.wiggill - 2014-02-21 07:27

    If Richard Spoor has a view, it is always worth listening.

  • winston.wiggill - 2014-02-21 07:27

    If Richard Spoor has a view, it is always worth listening.

  • Shock & Awe - 2014-02-21 07:33

    So, Patrick Craven... The workers are operating in line with the " capitalist ethos"... That means they are the enemy ...aren't they Patrick? You don't like capitalism ... In fact your populist rhetoric that flows every week laments the fact that we aren't a socialist / communist country. need to be telling these miners that they are behaving like colonialist industrialists .. And they should be stopped ... Of course , Patrick.. When you get your salary every month ... You're just a " worker " aren't you ? Your nice house and car aren't capitalist trappings , in fact you've probably realized that you should in fact be sharing them with your fellow workers ... Can I pop round and borrow your car please ?? Animal farm Patrick.... Animal farm,...

  • criticallyhonest - 2014-02-21 08:55

    Next item... Zama Zama now belong to a union and are demanding safer conditions and more pay, because of the risk of arrest and loss of income! The answer is to hit those higher up the supply chain, expose them! Regulate, and tax all income.

  • Yaj Chetty - 2014-02-21 10:41

    Zama Zamas are entrepreneurs but we criminalise them !

      JudithNkwe - 2014-02-21 14:45

      Clinton if they were legalise your point would be inva;id

      Mike Immelman - 2014-02-24 16:32

      So are many forms of entrepreneurial activity criminalized, such as dealimg in drugs, mugging, ....

      Blinde Sambok - 2014-02-25 12:13

      So tomorrow the cash in transit robbers and house burglars will also be called entrepreneurs. Interesting concept until it is your property being stolen. Sounds a lot like privateering in the good old days of sailing ships...

  • JudithNkwe - 2014-02-21 14:46

    It makes sense to legalise their work and give them real opportunities. The big mining companies do not pay well nor do they produce on their CSR commitments

      Blinde Sambok - 2014-02-25 12:14

      So that makes it ok to steal? Interesting cultural perspective yours...

  • Teigue Payne - 2014-02-24 07:35

    Because mine labour costs are regulated, marginal gold mines have to be closed down. They are then invaded by illegal miners who put themselves and the environment at risk and collapse the support columns of old mines. Wouldn’t a better solution be to allow co-operatives of the mine workers to take over these closed operations, operate them in a legal and safe manner, extract what they can in a sustainable way (in other words not short-term cherry pickin), and then pay themselves whatever the proceeds are. But of course that is actually impossible because the government has recently passed a law applying minimum wage and bargaining council provisions to co-operatives – in other words telling co-owners what they must pay themselves.

  • sxp - 2014-02-24 12:39

    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 is why the state should pay for ALL our wants and needs. They have all our lawful money and minerals under their custodianship. No man should have to pay for anything, or they must give our lawful money back and allow us to mine and own raw gold and other minerals.

  • Mike Immelman - 2014-02-24 16:40

    I doubt the Zama Zama agree that "their" gold belongs to all the people of SA. Surely it must be possible to regulate this mining in the same way as the Taxi industry regulates itself.

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