The plight of S.Africa's informal miners

'It's all we have'

03 May 2021 | Sakenuus
Claire Doyen - Darkness enveloped a disused mine in South Africa's Mpumalanga province as a pick-up truck left the site's entrance and drove off into the night, loaded with coal.

Informal miner Bonginkosi Mhlanga threw a pickaxe over his shoulder and descended back below ground, where he would remain until daybreak.

Locally known as "zama zamas" - "those who try and try" in the Zulu language - Mhlanga and his counterparts scrape a living by chipping away at abandoned mine shafts previously exploited by mining conglomerates.

There are thousands of informal miners in South Africa, according to the National Association of Artisanal Miners (NAAM).

Many were left jobless when mining companies moved on, struggling to find new work in a country of 59 million people where unemployment stood above 30% even before coronavirus hit.


Mhlanga, 31, skidded down 82 slippery steps bringing him back down into a narrow tunnel just 1.6 metres high.

The air grew thick as he made his descent, walls and floor dripping with humidity.

Bent-over figures brushed past, barely visible in the darkness as they lugged bulging sacks of coal up to the surface.

The ceiling lowered as Mhlanga made his way forward, passing patches of fungus, until he reached a black vein in the rock some two metres wide.

"Here is my spot," he told AFP.

"I take care of it, I keep it clean, and no one is supposed to touch it."

Using a headlamp, Mhlanga lifted his pickaxe and plunged it repeatedly into the rock with all his strength.

Black fragments flew out and fell at his feet.

He would later gather the raw coal with his bare hands and stuff it into old polypropylene sacks to sell for a meagre R500 per tonne.


Mining is an important source of revenue for South Africa, raking in around eight percent of GDP.

"Zama zamas" operate in around 6 000 disused mines across the country, NAAM estimates.

Lack of maintenance and the unmonitored use of explosives can cause ageing tunnels to collapse, burying miners with them.

"When you go down there you never know whether you'll be back," Mhlanga said, reluctant to talk about past incidents.

"If it happens, you have to run and leave everything behind."

Mining groups "come, extract and just leave", said NAAM spokesman Zethu Hlatshwayo, with little regard for workers left "in bad shape with debts" and sickness.

Environmental groups and NAAM claim mining causes significant water and air pollution, although official figures are hard to come by.

Mpumalanga, South Africa's coal mining hub, was dubbed the world's largest air pollution hotspot by Greenpeace in 2018.

The province's fertile grassland houses a fleet of twelve coal-fired power stations owned by South Africa's embattled state power utility Eskom.

Those towering concrete columns cause 2 239 deaths per year attributable to respiratory illness, heart disease, lung cancer and stroke, according to South African environmental group groundWork.


In the former coal mining town of Ermelo, residents continue to dig into disused shafts, degrading their health in order to put food on the table.

They hope the government will grant them legal access to the sites, as with 800 artisanal diamond miners in the central city of Kimberley in 2018 - a move meant to formalise and regulate the activity.

Thick grey smoke hovered over the sprawling townships surrounding Ermelo, seeping out of corrugated iron roofs and filling the late afternoon air with the nauseating smell of combustion.

Almost every household heats and cooks with coal.

"It's all we have around here," said Wesselton township resident Buhle Nkosi.

Seven months pregnant, Nkosi lives in a makeshift home with no toilet, running water or electricity. Her only source of power is a small coal stove.

More than 80% of South Africa's power is generated by coal, which is also exported to China and Europe.


Renewable energy accounts for less than two percent of electricity output in a country ranked the world's 12th-largest greenhouse gas emitter by Bloomberg this year.

The government has vowed to reduce coal-generated electricity production by 59% by 2030.

But "such things take time and we are hungry today," Hlatshwayo noted.

Back at the abandoned mine shaft, Mhlanga dragged his last bags of coal back up the 82 steps.

He has made just R250 for a twelve hour night shift.

As dawn broke, informal miner Eddie Malaga arrived for his turn and lit a joint. Like many others, he smokes marijuana before descending into the abyss.

"The pollution doesn't hit us as much as hunger," said the 37-year-old, dragging on his spliff.

"Sorry for the next generation, but we are suffering now." – Nampa/AFP



Skoolhoof van Swakop sterf aan Covid-19

10 ure gelede | Mense

Ronelle Rademeyer – Huldeblyke het gister uit onderwys- en ander kringe ingestroom nadat die skoolhoof van Pro-Ed Akademie se hoër­skool op Swakopmund, mnr. Henry McCarthy,...

ReconAfrica voor hof gedaag

10 ure gelede | Howe

Ronelle Rademeyer – Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) het sonder konsultasie of vooraf kennisgewing die natuurlike woud en landerye wat wettiglik deur 'n familie by Mbambi...

Weer vir 10 Mei 2021

10 ure gelede | Weer

BINNELAND: Sonnig en warm tot baie warm in die Suide. Elders sal dit gedeeltelik bewolk en warm tot baie warm wees.KUS: Gedeeltelik bewolk en warm...

Nog NBC-werkers keer terug

10 ure gelede | Arbeid

Hoewel die NBC-staking landswyd voortduur, het 74 werknemers intussen teruggekeer werk toe en is die Engelse radiodiens, National FM, weer terug op die lug. Die...

Noodkreet teen misdaadvlaag

10 ure gelede | Misdaad

Tunohole Mungoba op Oshakati – Die Oshakati-stadsraad het Donderdag 'n openbare vergade­ring in Okandjengeni-Suid op dié dorp gehou waar verskeie veiligheidskwessies geopper en klagtes teen...

Dwelms van amper N$2 miljoen gekonfiskeer

10 ure gelede | Misdaad

Volgens die Namibiese polisie is in April meer mense in besit van dwelms in hegtenis geneem as gedurende Maart. In Maart is 106 mense in...

Nuwe lewe in onooglike kraghuis geblaas

10 ure gelede | Kuns en vermaak

Claudia Reiter – Die kunstenaars Kat en Lens het die mure van 'n transformator-substasie in Conrad Ruststraat in Klein Windhoek geverf en verfraai. “Ons ry...

Geen partytjie vir Nujoma

10 ure gelede | Gemeenskap

Die kantoor van die stigterspresident Sam Nujoma het aangekondig hy gaan nie op 12 Mei sy 92ste verjaardag met 'n openbare byeenkoms vier nie. Dié...

Betaaldag hier vir Air Namibia se personeel

10 ure gelede | Vervoer

Ogone Tlhage – Die minister van openbare ondernemings (SOE's), mnr. Leon Jooste, het bevestig die regering het 'n gedeelte betaal van die N$278 miljoen wat...