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Riverlea child's shooting highlights the plight of zama zamas and the communities they live in

By Rapule Moiloa


On 4 September 2023, Riverlea residents were told to stay away from Main Reef Road, a central and vital route in the west of Johannesburg.


The warning, sent out by police, was because illegal miners and police were in a shootout in the area. A child was shot at the Cecil Payne Stadium during crossfire between the zama zamas and police, and the fight continued between the two sides.


Riverlea is a low-cost housing development founded in the 1960s. About 24 000 people live there and are affected by large-scale and illegal mining. The area deals with several shootings, between the illegal miners and police, and sometimes between illegal miners themselves in turf wars. As zama zamas move to different areas after the area they mine is depleted, fights over resources begin.


One resident, Dawn Solomon, said Riverlea residents have to manage with the illegal miners and the dangers that come with them because they live in the same area.


"The fear is so great in the community because people are getting shot, robbed and we don't how the police will handle this problem, because the community lives in fear, the children can't play the way they used to out side their homes," she said.


Benchmarks Foundation assists communities that live around mining areas to ensure they are aware about the dangers of open mines and acid mine drainage, as well as other mining-related issues. According to its lead researcher, David van Wyk, zama zamas do not start the turf wars - it is syndicates who employ and control them who do.


"Many of the zama zamas are recruited from their home towns and they continue staying in informal settlements just as they did before when they worked as legal mine workers, before the mines were abandoned. The mine workers posses only skills for mining, hence today we are faced with the issue of zama zamas," he explained. In Riverlea, there is an area called Zama Impilo - an informal settlement where the illegal miners stay.


Because the miners have jobs that can become literal matters of life and death, it is difficult, said Van Wyk, for communities to speak to them about their safety concerns. Fraynews was unable to find a miner willing to speak.


"It's not easy to engage zama zamas in their space because of their line of work and their environment because of the turf wars taking place. But I have the privilege of white skin in a racist society [so they spoke to me]. Secondly, I had good ice-breakers in Chris Molebatsi, Brown Matsau and Tiny Dlamini," said Van Wyk. Molebatsi, Matsau and Dlamini assisted with connections and translations.


Mine workers are exposed to toxic dust containing silica, lead and arsenic among other things. There are 6 000 or more abandoned mines in South Africa that are no longer profitable for large-scale industrial mining. After the mines were abandoned by big companies, mine workers lost their jobs. They were not upskilled, so they can only mine. Abandoned mines are often not closed by the companies that previously owned them.


An estimated 34 000 people work as miners illegally. According to Van Wyk, there is a dependency ratio of eight to one miner. That means about 250 000 people are reliant on zama zamas to stay alive. Van Wyk said a focus group discussion was held with the zama zamas to understand their problems more, as well as the way they work. Results of that focus group are due to be released...

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