, SPRINGS, South Africa, Nov 2 – With his armoured 4×4 parked at the entrance of an abandoned gold mine shaft in South Africa, the security guard armed with a gun and a bullet proof vest makes for a menacing sentry.
But he couldn’t do anything when five illegal miners were killed in September by gangs fighting to control the Grootvlei mine in Springs, a blue-collar town located 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Johannesburg.
“Bullets were flying. I called the police but they only came in the morning to pick up the bodies,” said the security guard, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Police are too afraid to come here.”
South Africa has approximately 6,000 mines that companies have been abandoned in the face of falling profits.
The mines attract thousands illegal miners – known as zama zamas (Zulu for “those who try their luck”) – who descend into the ageing shafts and wells, sometimes living for months underground digging for nuggets of gold.
There are between 8,000 and 30,000 illegal miners in the country, according to the South African Human Rights Commission, a national institution designed to protect human rights.
Illegal mining is dangerous work to begin with – and today it is getting worse, with the emergence of armed gangs kidnapping rival miners and forcing them to work in slave-like conditions underground.
In September, about 20 people were killed in an outbreak of gang violence around Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa’s mining industry, known as the “City of Gold.”
“There is an increasing level of violence, gang war and intimidation by illegal miners,” said the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, the country’s mining industry employers’ organisation, in a report this year.
“Illegal mining activities and organised crime are interrelated. Illegal miners are often heavily armed, have explosives and set ambushes and body traps for employees, security and rival groups of illegal miners.”
The escalating violence is troubling surrounding communities.
“The kids who are four years old know the sound of the gun,” said Springs resident Samson Jerry Aphane, holding a spent bullet in his hand as proof of the deteriorating situation.
“They know they have to lie down.”