Referred to as Zama-Zamas in South Africa, these gangs disrupt mining operations while looting many millions of dollars' worth of gold from these mines each year, taking over entire mine-shafts at gunpoint, hacking gold-holding ore from the rock faces without any knowledge of mining safety, and causing very dangerous working conditions for company miners. Some 17 crime-syndicates have already formed to help these illegal mining-gangs smuggle the gold out of the country, according to the Chamber of Mines and the South African Institute for Security Studies.
The backyard smelting operations also are causing massive chemical pollution of the water in the regions where the gangs are the most active.
Ghana -- Ashanti Gold mining operations also disrupted
Other gold mines elsewhere in Africa are also suffering from the identical problem: in Ghana, the so-named 'galamseyers'
also disrupted commercial operations in several mines, costing mining conglomerates millions of dollars in Africa's second biggest gold mining region after South Africa. see
Many companies' gold-miners fear working underground because they are increasingly being threatened by these gangs, who often carry AK47s. and other high-calibre weaponry which they buy from the Chinese triad crime syndicates which buy the gold off them, according to a recent investigation by the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
This problem has been going on a smaller scale, mostly in abandoned mines, for years. This was highlighted by last year's mysterious deaths of five illegal miners who were working in old diggings of the Fairview mine in Mpumalanga province. Ignoring warnings that it was too dangerous to attempt to rescue the bodies, the miners' families, along with men who apparently had a clear idea of the underground, kept digging and recovered the five bodies. At the same time, the body of another illegal miner, who had disappeared more than a year ago, was discovered in the nearby Sheba mine.
The Barberton area is pockmarked with old tunnels and shafts. So is Pilgrim's Rest, long a source of illegally mined gold.
Due to the rapidly rising gold price however, working commercial mines with their higher cold-contents are now becoming the main targets for the gold-mining crime syndicates. They invade mineshafts and snatch the blasted gold-bearing ore and manage to smuggle it to the surface in a well-organised system.
Police generally fight a losing battle inside the dark, deep and often dangerous mine shafts, with which they are not familiar, whereas the rogue-mining gangs, who often work underground for months at a time, are operating on -- what they are increasingly viewing-- as 'their own turf.'
With such dangerous conditions, police always are pleased whenever they do manage to nab some of these miners. Odendaalsrus police captain S Thakeng therefore was justifiably proud when he announced this week that they had carried out a successful raid and arrested five rogue-miners.
He says their police members frequently have to carry out raids at the mines to identify the illegal miners from amongst the bonafide ones. The problem occurs all across the Goldfields region -- including mines in Welkom, Odendaalsrus, Virginia, Hennenman, Allanridge and Ventersburg, with a combined population of more than about 400,000 people.
He said 'the five suspects pretended to be miners who were on duty. But they could not provide the security personnel with proper documentation regarding their presence on the mine premises. ..."
When they were searched by police inspector Velaphi Dhlamini and Constable David Hlobo, gold-bearing ore and a cap lamp were found with the suspects, he said. The arrested men all were from neighbouring landlocked Lesotho, where many men have worked as legal miners in South Africa for years and thus know the mines well. "This illegal mining is really a problem but mine workers can assist the police and security personnel in reporting illegal miners or Zama-zamas,' said Captain Thakeng.
Station commander Moipone Mbongo said the police were determined to bring these perpetrators to book.
Solidarity trade union warns that these illegal miners are working in such large gangs in the commercial mines, that they are posing a serious danger to mining safety: they often blast rock from the mine shafts without any regard to safety, causing frequent collapses. And often these illegal miners will follow bona-fide mining teams, rush in and grab the gold-ore which was blasted away just minutes before the 'all-clear' was given.
The Chamber of Mines in South Africa reports that many of the rogue-miners belong to well organised crime syndicates which even have up-to-date maps of mining operations.And they are growing increasingly bold - entire mine-shafts have already been taken over by them.
There are also many reports of armed illegal miners threatening company miners underground.
About 17 criminal syndicates smuggle the metal out, says the Institute for Security Studies.
"Gold is easy to identify, easy to mine, relatively easy to sell and can be mixed with legitimately acquired gold", they point out. see
Target, Mine in Welkom -- which used to be known as Harmony Gold, is the world's deepest gold-mine. The 100% black-owned mine in 2001 still produced an annual 350,000oz of melted down gold.
However, the mine is struggling to reach its target of late, according to its annual report, because 'the grade of gold-bearing ore is diminishing.'
They have also budgeted some $215m to sink new shafts to access fresh gold reserves at even greater depths: between 2,200m and 2,500m below the surface, and it is becoming exceedingly expensive to operate machinery to keep such shafts open and operating.
With miners and mining companies increasingly having to also struggle with armed rogue-mining gangs, mining for gold has become a very dangerous business indeed in South Africa. see
Also see our previous article on gold mining in South Africa here