Gold in South Africa: Battles For Life


Roodepoort, South Africa (Gallo Images /The Times/Daniel Born)

On April 4, a truck carrying gold mine workers known as Zama Zamas crashed resulting in the death of four workers. Zama Zamas are undocumented migrants in South Africa who work in illegal gold mining. They face many challenges stemming from the lack of mining safety measures and lack of protection outside the mines. Such fatal accidents are not new to South Africa or its Zama Zama workers, especially because the Zama Zama population is seen as a problem for South Africa’s struggling economy. Neither deportation nor blatantly ignoring the problem is going to resolve it; moving forward, there are not many options for these workers or the South African government.

Gold mining was one of South Africa’s vital industries for a long time. Following the reconciliation era led by former President Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, South Africa’s economy flourished and a lot of it’s resources were put into use. However, the South African economy is currently struggling, and the gold mining industry has lost its traditional economic significance. One outcome of the economic struggle is the rate of unemployment, which has reached 26 percent and 39 to 60 percent among youth. These are troubling  figures for one of the biggest African economies.

The economic difficulties in South Africa today are in part the legacy of former President Jacob Zuma. The political upheaval following accusations of corruption which led to his resignation is a major factor that  contributed to the plunging economy in South Africa. Meanwhile, vulnerable groups such as the Zama Zama population workers pay high costs in such hostile economic and political environment; their working conditions have only gotten worse.

South Africa is thought to  possess the second largest uncovered reservoir of gold in the world, and has historically been a hub for colonial exploitation of such resources. Today, South Africa has become the destination for migrants from neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, who have been flocking to the nation’s borders looking for better job opportunities. Faced with the challenges of illegal status, these migrants end up taking the worst and most dangerous jobs. Gold mining stands out where the majority of workers happen to be these migrants. Migrant miners end up living in areas that are plagued with violence and lack basic infrastructure. Families in those areas report that government officials and police forces in particular are ignorant of their struggles and, in cases of violence outbreak, late response are the norm.

While many of the gold mines are not viable for real economic opportunities, they still hold enough gold deposits that tempts Zama Zamas to take the risk of working them. Reports indicate that the South African economy is losing millions of dollars as a result of this illegal activity, but the bigger loss that is overlooked is actually the loss of lives and the constant serious wounds encountered by miners in their search for gold.

Migrant miners spend days under ground, with very little safety measures. Death from falling boulders of rocks, explosives, and syndicate robberies are all part of these workers’ disturbing realities. On the outskirts of Johannesburg, where many of the abandoned mines are located,  reports of uncovered bodies and trapped workers continue to be a major consequence of South Africa’s illegal gold mining industry.

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