They say money doesn’t grow on trees. Well, sometimes it’s just under your feet! A community of Mozambican migrants in Carletonville, in the South African province of Gauteng, found gold dust in the soil of the informal settlement of Xawela.
A long and complicated process allows the zama zamas (informal miners) to produce and sell pure gold without leaving their home. A day of hard work is enough to feed a family for a week, fuelling the informal economy of the township.
A nifty operation
The process begins at dawn, when some adolescents of the informal settlement start sweeping the streets of Xawela. “They need to bring 15 barrels of soil to make around one gram of gold,” explains John D (42), the marshal of the operation.
The youths sweep the precious dust early in the morning, before preparing for school. Neo (20) and Zweli (18) work tirelessly to gather the loot for their seniors. “This is our life, but our education is also important,” admits Neo. One day, they will also be zama zamas. Born and bred in the settlement, they have already enrolled in the Delta, the local gang which runs surface and underground mining in the area.
While the boys are gathering the raw dust in an unforgiving soggy day, another group is setting up the sieve. On the outskirts of the settlement, they dig large pit holes which they use to extract the mineral.
“Out here is the wilderness,” comments LSG, a general in the Delta gang. “Sometimes we find buffalos, antelopes or hyenas roaming around. When there is no food at home, people will go out there and hunt.”
Next to each pit hole is a ramp, covered with cloths where the gold will stick. The miners placed a large bucket made into a sieve on top of the ramp and started filling it with the metal dust. A hose pipe inside the container provides running water throughout the process.
From dust to grof
After some hours spent processing the soil under the pouring rain, the cloths on the ramp glitter with gold. The operation now moves into John D’s home and spaza (convenience) shop, where the men are sitting around a fire and having drinks. While John D washes the mineral from the cloths inside a bucket, West, Castro, Samson and Metlo burn some soil with a high concentration of gold.
One last step, then the precious loot is ready for moulding. John D drops some mercury in a plate and then starts sieving the water full of the shining dust. “You can find the mercury in any pharmacy or hardware store,” he says.
The liquid element is a useful magnet, which starts turning yellow as it incorporates the gold. He puts aside the bigger grains mumbling “point one gram... point two grams...”
Once the sieving is done, one last capable move separates with a cloth the liquid mercury from the solid gold.
Inside a shack, John D lights a blow torch to mold the metal inside a plate. He knocks it with a spoon to make it into a small nugget. “Here is the grof,” he demonstrates proudly. The grof (Afrikaans for “coarse”) weighs approximately one gram.
“In town, we can sell it for seven, eight hundred rand [just under $50] if we’re lucky,” concludes John D.
“Here is the big deal!” exclaims in excitement West (37), while pouring some beer on the grof. The men amass around the raw nugget to witness the result of their hard work.
The golden legacy
The township of Xawela is in the outskirts of Carletonville, a mining town located on the north-western part of the Witwatersrand Gold Reef. Mining operations in the area began in the late 1800s, when settlers from the Cape laid the first stone of Ferreirarsdorp, the oldest suburb in Johannesburg.
Not far from the South African metropolis, Carletonville was built in 1937 in a location considered as the richest gold-mining area in the world. Mining companies such as Anglo Gold, Sibanye and Impala scrambled for a piece of land, digging in the depths of earth to extract the precious mineral.
The gold rush attracted migrant labor from across southern Africa. Shortly, informal and illegal miners began plundering gold-rich soil and ore from the shafts.
The oldest residents of Xawela remember a time when smugglers hid huge quantities of gold in the township. They looted nearby mines with some inside help and used Xawela as a hideaway.
“I made a lot of money with gold in my youth,” said Virginio (53) from Maputo. “I used it to support my family and start my panel beating business.”
Many years later, a generation of young migrants found gold nuggets inside pit toilets and discovered a concentration of gold dust in the soil under their shacks.
A journey to hell
While the community of Xawela feeds off the gold deposits hidden in the soil, the group of zama zamas also works underground.
To reach the tunnels of the buried city, an abandoned wing of an old mine, they climb down a 300-meters deep shaft with a complex system of ropes and pulleys.
“There are strict regulations in place to avoid illegal mining in active shafts, but it’s almost impossible to keep zama zamas away,” admits Nyko, an employee of the National Union of Mineworkers. Furthermore, the companies have no interest in preventing illicit activities in abandoned shafts.
Hundreds of people cooperate in the underground tunnels, using military hierarchy and martial law to maintain order.
As one of the generals of the Delta gang, LSG oversees the appropriation of gold, platinum, and copper cables in mines where his subjects spend up to three months without seeing the light of the sun.
“The Shangaan people from Mozambique are the most skilled gold diggers,” he says. “Instead the baSotho [from Lesotho and the Free State province in South Africa] are the guardians of the shaft. Some of them are vicious, in smaller shafts they would take advantage of the zama zamas, make them work like slaves, rob them and even rape sometimes.”
Many of the illegal miners are skillful former mine contractors. They know the tunnels inside out and carry out blasting operations and routine geological checks with professional precision. The refining of the gold happens directly underground, where wealth is diffuse and goods sell in out-and-out underground stores at ten times the market price.
Nonetheless, accidents disrupt the operations from time to time. During an interview, a general picks up the phone. After a heated discussion, he explains: “somebody broke his leg in a blast. They’re taking him out tonight”.
Far West, far South
One of the gangsters pulls out of his pocket two large pieces of raw gold. “This one is about 20 grams, this is 15,” he remarks. Some of the miners sent them up from the shaft. After selling them, the gang will deliver a share of the proceeds to the miners’ families.
“When the zama zamas come back to surface,” laughs LSG, “the whole township is abuzz. People have a lot of money and the parties last for days.”
In the shacks of Khutsong, a larger township near Xawela, gangsters hide explosives, guns and AK-47 rifles. Several gangs contend illicit markets regulating smuggled gold, copper cables, drugs, prostitution, and firearms.
“Our gangs are different from the ones you find in jail,” elaborates LSG. The main criminal clans of Carletonville are called Delta, Casanova, Vandal and Creature. Their rivalry accounts for several murders and regular shootouts over control of drug and prostitution hotspots. The law enforcement may stop the most striking incidents, but generally colludes with the gangsters to maintain peace in town.
Jail time is a temporary punishment for serial murderers and mobsters. Somebody in the gang reminisces of his time behind bars, after a heist at a petrol station: “two people were killed in my cell, right in front of my eyes. But there is a code, you won’t speak up otherwise you’ll be next. On record, they both committed suicide.”
One of the zama zamas was arrested for house robbery. “I killed a lot of people before coming clean. I have a family to feed back home.” After some years in jail, he decided to give up violence and work in the mines. “You can call this illegal, but for me it’s just a job,” he admits.
When the sun goes down over Khutsong, it’s time for a group of zama zamas to “shoot down” in the mine. They enter the shaft, buckle up and leap into darkness. Their game is on.
Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)
Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)