south africa artisanal gold miners
Phakiso Au, left, and another artisanal miner near the disused mine shafts where they search for gold at Durban Deep. PHOTO: Kate Bartlett

Grenades, Drugs and Discrimination: Inside South Africa’s Illegal Gold Rush

They spend weeks underground, blasting rocks with explosives in the hope they’ll find gold. VICE World News meets the “zama zamas” – South Africa’s controversial illegal miners.

JOHANNESBURG – Dust-covered men in filthy rags emerge like moles from the deep dark hole in the earth, rubbing their eyes against the shock of the light. Others toil in the midday sun, many carrying heavy bags of stones, some sifting through buckets of muddy water with their hands.

It looks like a scene from an old Western, poor prospectors risking their lives for gold in a dangerous, dusty hellscape. But this isn’t America and it’s not a movie, it’s South Africa’s economic capital Johannesburg, pertinently dubbed Egoli or “place of Gold.” European colonisers flocked here in the 1880s after the discovery of the precious metal. Now, a new gold rush is happening, and bringing with it violence and untold misery.


The prospectors in this new African Wild West are known as “zama zamas,” a Zulu colloquialism meaning “to take a chance” or “to keep trying.” And they do persevere, spending weeks at a time down a network of precarious, warren-like tunnels deep underground, eating, sleeping and digging – always digging. 

Illegal miners work without permission from the state. Many of them are migrants from South Africa’s poorer neighbours, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho, and the men work in conditions similar to modern-day slaves eking out a meagre living. But the illicit industry as a whole is worth billions of rands and the mafia kingpins who run the criminal syndicates are getting rich.

Zama zamas have been around for years, and have largely been ignored by police, but illegal mining is now a hot topic of debate in South Africa after a shocking mass gang rape made headlines around the world. Police are alleged to have a hand in the industry, but they have consistently denied this and said there is no evidence for the claims.


PHOTO: Kate Bartlett

In July, a group of models was attacked and brutally raped by a group of men believed to be zama zamas while filming at an old mine dump in Krugersdorp on the outskirts of Johannesburg.  

The incident shocked the nation, which already has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. Some South Africans who live in the nearby townships, many also spurred by a rising tide of xenophobia against foreign African nationals, took the law into their own hands.  After the news of the rapes broke, angry mobs burnt shacks belonging to a community of zama zamas’, stripped them naked and brutally beat them.


President Cyril Ramaphosa called for those responsible for the gang rapes to be arrested, and police sprang into action, conducting mass raids on zama zamas in the area and arresting more than 100. Most were charged with illegal mining and illegal immigration, but 14 were also charged with rape after they gave swabs for DNA testing.

Police operations against the zama zamas are ongoing, but have been criticised for only collaring the lowest level miners, some of them as young as 13, and not getting to the heart of the well-run criminal syndicates. 

Some in the mining industry say the situation is like a war zone and are now calling for the army to be deployed, a measure Ramaphosa has said he’s not ruling out.

South Africa continues to hold some of the largest gold reserves in the world, and once accounted for two thirds of the world’s production. But the reserves are increasingly expensive and difficult to mine and when companies abandon the site, these artisanal miners step in to explore what is left.


Zama zamas crawl down the narrow holes in dangerous conditions to search for leftover gold. PHOTO: Kate Bartlett

They work in precarious conditions without any protective equipment, using explosives to break the rocks, facing noxious gas leaks and possible rock collapses, not to mention violent turf wars underground between rival groups. Many die anonymously – a report by Human Rights Watch estimates that 300 died between 2012-15 – but it’s a risk they take.


Durban Deep, a mine in the West Rand near the site of one of the first gold discoveries in Johannesburg in the 1880s, formally ceased its operations more than two decades ago but is still believed to hold large amounts of gold. Now it’s been totally overtaken by illegal miners. 

The desperately impoverished area gives no immediate clue to the subterranean illicit business and labyrinth of tunnels.

The surrounding velt is dry and strewn with vast amounts of plastic litter, which scrawny goats are eagerly picking through. Unemployed men play draughts for money in front of tin-shack hair salons and barber shops with hand-painted signs. At smoky sidewalk shishanyamas (the  Zulu word for barbecue) people grill chicken and stir huge pots of the maize-meal staple, “pap.” Music blasts from makeshift taverns where many Durban Deep residents are drinking  at 10AM, and the smell of weed wafts down the street. Narcotics use is widespread among the zama zamas. 


Two zama zamas smoke outside their shack in Durban Deep. PHOTO: Kate Bartlett

But make your way through the narrow spaces between the flimsy shacks of corrugated iron where residents live, and the outdoor plastic portaloos installed for them by the government, and you enter the world of the zama zamas. 

Several unsmiling young men, some wrapped in the traditional patterned blankets worn by people from the tiny mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, watch warily. One, with a small silver earring in his left ear, makes his way through a six-pack of a sweet pink alcoholic drink called Brutal Fruit. The Sothos usually carry AK47s, often hidden by their blankets, and almost everyone in Durban Deep is armed. The zama zamas even carry hand grenades as part of their large cache of weapons seized by police, as well as rocket launchers.


The men sit in front of a deep hole, about two metres wide and of untold depth, down which a rustic rope dangles, its other end loosely tied to a pole stuck in the earth. This is one of the mine shafts the zama zamas go down. All around used batteries are strewn, discarded from the miners’ headlamps. 

Kgotsofalang Senanyane, whose name means “satisfaction,” is a 25-year-old from Lesotho – most of those at Durban Deep are, and the Sotho zama zamas are believed to be among the most highly organised gangs. He tells VICE World News why he became a zama zama and his story is echoed almost word for word by the many others interviewed. 

“I wasn’t employed in Lesotho, I just did a bit of farm work taking care of sheep. What brought me to South Africa is poverty. Some of my friends were here in Durban Deep already and told me to come,” he says. “My first time going underground I was terrified. I wish I could do something else.”


Residents sit outside a makeshift tavern in Durban Deep, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. PHOTO: Kate Bartlett

He says that in the morning when you go near the hole “there’s steam coming out,” likely referring to methane gas. 

Senanyane says he gets about 700 rand ($40, £35) for going down the shaft, though it is unclear for how long. The miners fill bags with soil and rocks but until they get them back to the surface and process them they don’t know whether they’ve found any gold or not. A gram of gold is worth about 940 rand.

This is an informal, illegal operation, so it's impossible to get a true figure on what the zama zamas earn. Experts cast doubt on whether the bottom-of-the-rung miners make anywhere near what Senanyane says. 


They say some zama zamas work for themselves, others for syndicates, and so what they make varies drastically week to week, depending on whether they find gold or not. Figures for the number of zama zamas operating in South Africa and the true cost to the country's economy are equally hard to verify.


miners use hand-spun cylinders known as 'phendukas' to break up rock found underground and see if it contains gold. PHOTO: KATE BARTLETT

Senanyane also claims police are complicit in the illegal operations. 

“Sometimes when you come back to the surface police are there and take your bags away and you have to go back down,” he said. “They come and ask for bribes or they put us in a cell. It’s a business for them. Then the police sell our bags to other zama zamas and we have to go buy them back.”

Police have always denied these charges, with Minister of Police Bheki Cele saying recently there was no evidence for any of them.

However, Julian Rademeyer, Southern and East Africa director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, also claims police are often in on it. Police did not respond to a request for comment from VICE World News when contacted.

When they do crack down for the benefit of TV cameras, he says they’re usually arresting the “foot soldiers” not the bosses, and no matter how many they arrest or deport there’ll be more to take their place. There are believed to be tens of thousands of zama zamas operating in South Africa.

“It takes the rape of eight women for police to deal with a problem that’s been building and building,” Rademeyer says. 


But, he notes, it’s also important to understand there are different kinds of zama zamas.

“You have illegal migrants, and we've seen cases for instance where they're kids as young as 14, being found working in mines, they've almost been sort of press ganged. So there clearly are people who're being exploited at the low end,” he told Vice World News.


Zama Zamas use rudimentary equipment to sift through rock and soil for gold. PHOTO: Kate Bartlett

“But it's also clear that there are extremely violent gangs who are involved and control what happens underground. They have access to military style weapons...weapons from the Lesotho defence force, but it's also weapons from the South African police service,” he said. The weapons are sometimes stolen from the police, but corrupt cops sometimes sell them to the miners.

“You have raging firefights deep underground between your rival syndicates, you know murders are pretty common.… It's almost a sort of gold rush madness type of underworld.” 

And there’s a whole other life deep underground. Most go down for a day or two, but some spend months at a time underground. 

“There have been examples of zama zamas having sex workers brought down to work in the mines... especially when you've got people spending weeks, months, underground. I've seen cases (where) they've taken a television down, they've got a bar fridge, they’ve got a DVD collection – you know basically having to live a life and not see the sun for months,” Rademeyer added.


A short distance from the blanket-wearing guards, comes the sound of the constant clanking of machinery. Then a narrow path between shacks opens up to reveal  dozens of dusty zama zamas, many wearing makeshift knee guards, gumboots, balaclavas and head-torches, using equipment they call “phendukas,” hand-driven, perforated cylinders with iron balls and water inside. 

The heavy bags of dirt the zamas have brought up from their travails underground are put through the phendukas at the processing site to break up the rock. Mercury is later added to try to find gold.  

Rademeyer says when the zama zamas and syndicates do find gold, they take it to one of the more than 100 refineries around Johannesburg and from there most of the gold is sold to the United Arab Emirates, where few questions are asked about its origins. The Minerals Council of South Africa estimates the country loses some 21 billion rand ($1.2 billion) a year to illegal gold mining.

But Phakiso Au, a zama zama from Lesotho who says he’s been toiling in Johannesburg’s disused mine shafts since arriving in the country in 2013, is yet to see any of that money.

“I get 500 rand ($30) for going underground for a few days. Sometimes I find gold, sometimes I don’t,” says the 29-year-old, who’s wearing old denim shorts over his pants and knee guards to help when he crawls and slides through the tunnels.

Asked if he’d heard about the gang rapes, he blamed another group of Sotho nationals. 


“We wear a yellow blanket, I think the ones who did the rapes wear a black blanket. I’m really scared the community will blame me for what bad people from my country did,” he said.

Certainly some of the South Africans living in the township that’s practically on top of the mine site – a legacy of apartheid when areas designated for Black people to live were built near the white-owned mines that employed them – are not happy with the zama zamas’ presence.

Kidisaletsi, a 68-year-old grandmother who lives in the township in a small brick house with her children’s high school certificates proudly hung on the wall, says she knows the zama zamas are chipping away and blasting right under her feet. 

“I don’t like the Sotho people because they made a big mess,” she complained, sitting on a sagging sofa in her slippers. “If there’s a heavy rain, holes open up. We’re on top of the holes, I’m scared my house will collapse.”

She says crime has also got worse since the zama zamas moved into the area.

“They shot two people on the 1st of August. Sometimes you see them with guns,´ added Kidisaletsi, who declined to give her full name for fear of retribution.  “At 7pm I lock my door, I’m afraid living here.” 

Rademeyer says crime in former mining settlements does appear to have increased where there’s zama zama activity nearby. 


photo: kate bartlett

“If you look at the crime levels in the Free State gold fields they did pick up... and in Krugersdorp itself (where the rapes happened) there's been an uptick in violent crime there which has in part been attributed to zama zama activity and gangs,” he said. 


There is no easy solution to the problem. Experts say even shutting the disused shafts won’t necessarily work. Besides, zama zamas are not only going down abandoned shafts, some of them even sneak into the huge operating legal mines – sometimes by paying off those working there – and steal from those.

There’s been debate over whether it’s possible to bring artisanal miners into the regulated industry, but things are tough and even multinational mines have seen layoffs of legal workers in recent years. 

There’s a worry communities will blame zama zamas for their misfortunes, and some in the government are already stoking the flames of xenophobia.

But, Rademeyer says, “the bottom line is there are a lot of South Africans getting rich on this, it's not necessarily the zama zamas themselves.” 

It’s “the refineries that benefit, the exporters who benefit. These are South Africans, South African-run companies and organisations are benefitting, corrupt South African police are benefitting, South African politicians in some instances potentially who are benefitting” he added. 

For Phakiso Au, the zama zama in Durban Deep, all he wants is to support his wife and two children back in Lesotho.

“It’s the zama zama dream, to find a huge piece of gold and get rich,” he says as he heads back down to the hole.

Update: We have updated the article to clarify that Julian Rademeyer did not say that zama zamas use grenades to blast through rock.