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An underground dystopia in South Africa

Zama-zamas lived in abandoned mines for months, sometimes years

When the gold-mining industry in the South African city of Welkom collapsed in the 1990s, says Kimon de Greef in The New Yorker, “a dystopian criminal economy emerged in its place”. Thousands of illegal miners, known as “zama-zamas” (Zulu for “take a chance”), lived underground for months, sometimes years, using rudimentary tools to dig for ore in the “labyrinthine network” of abandoned tunnels. They worked by headlight, in 35C temperatures and punishing humidity, trying to avoid fatal rockfalls and gas explosions. And the whole operation was run by brutal criminal gangs. It cost $1,000 or so to enter, sometimes by being winched down a vertical mine shaft behind vehicles that “reversed slowly for a mile or farther”. Once underground, workers relied on the gangs for everything. The markups on food alone “usually ranged from 500% to 1,000%”.

The old mines are now owned by a single company, Harmony, which has spent more than $100m dismantling this vast criminal underworld. Some 16,000 zama-zamas have been arrested since 2007. Security teams say “tunnel warfare” – where bullets ricochet off mine walls during shootouts – is more dangerous than fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Harmony has also tried to block the old access shafts, either by capping them with concrete or filling them with rubble. They spent two years trying to seal one shaft by pumping in “seemingly endless volumes of concrete” – only to discover that zama-zamas down below had been siphoning the slurry off before it could set. Their efforts have worked, however: investigators believe only around 200 illegal miners now remain underground. But it’s still a strange feeling, walking around the streets of Welkom, knowing there are men 2,000 feet below you, “scraping gold from the earth”.