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Illegal Gold Mining

Photographer: Kim Ludbrook


Illegal gold miners, Rooi Mpofu and Sherphard Sibanda, both from Zimbabwe, spend virtually every day underground in a disused commercial gold mine near Bram Fischerville, near Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa.


They are two of an estimated 6,000 to 14,000 illegal miners, or Zama Zama, working in South Africa with the majority in the 'Place of Gold' or Gauteng province, that includes Johannesburg.


Climbing down an old piece of rope into the disused mine, Rooi and Sherphard carry only food, water, a hammer and chisel, and sacks to bring out the ore, or bare earth, from the mine by hand. Working for up to three days non-stop underground, they bring the earth to the surface where they process it at a nearby river that runs through the huge disused mine dumps that are part of the landscape of the area.


They were gold miners at a mine in their native Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa to find work after the mine they were working in closed. About 70 percent of illegal miners in South Africa are undocumented immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho.


The men sell the gold to an (unknown) middleman for 350 ZAR (about 26.60 EUR) per gram, 30 percent below market price. This is barely enough to pay for their food and the rent for the tiny tin shack they live in, which is in the back yard of a local South African. If they can, Rooi and Sherpard send money back to their families and if they have saved enough they travel once a year back to Zimbabwe.


The Chamber of Mines estimates that the value of gold mined by Zama Zama is 5-10 percent of South Africa’s annual production, which amounts to 72 billion ZAR (6 billion USD). In Gauteng, 24 illegal miners have died from rockslides, poisonous gases or underground fires in 2015 alone. The Chamber of Mines claims that 180 abandoned mines have been sealed over the past year as dozens of miners are murdered annually as gangs wage a sub-surface war while trying to gain control of the gold deposits.


Rooi and Sherpard do not have an option to leave their illegal mining job but hope one day to move to safer jobs and earn more for their families.