Directly translated Zama Zamas mean ‘hustlers’ or ‘ones who keep trying and trying’. And try they do… Zama Zamas are poor and desperate artisanal (and unskilled) miners who are making a modest living through the dangerous practice of illegal mining in South Africa. These ‘miners’ are not educated in metallurgy or mining practices and are armed only with rudimentary tools and extreme courage. Many have come to South Africa from politically unstable countries to find work. Others are South Africans who are struggling to make a living doing something else. They travel to mining sites where they are lowered by rope to perform bone-breaking physical labour hammering rocks out and moving them to the surface for testing. Sometimes they will spend days, or even months, underground in the dark with limited air, food and water supplies. The work is difficult and dangerous in many ways.
Zama Zamas are not only at risk of falling down mine shafts, being buried in rubble when old and unmaintained mines collapse, or succumbing to poisonous underground gasses – they are also threatened by gang violence related to turf wars. Some have to fight to gain access to mines where security guards are posted. Many bring guns to the sites to defend their area (or to acquire an area through intimidation). In the illegal mining realm it is survival of the fittest, and ‘eat or be eaten’.
Thousands of illegal miners die every year in the vast network of underground tunnels. Even the South African government admits they have no idea of exactly what the death toll is. Because many of the miners are illegal migrants from neighbouring countries, emergency services are not always called in, and when they are, rescue teams don’t always recover survivors – 100-year-old tunnels simply pose too much of the risk for rescue workers to proceed, not to mention the added risk of being caught in an underground shoot-out between rival gangs.
Aptly named ‘eGoli’ or ‘City of Gold’ Johannesburg is located in the country with the second-largest gold reserve in the world. Considering this, it’s hard to believe that people have to risk their lives extracting gold – and yet make less than a living wage. The harsh reality is that the Zama Zamas are one of the most vulnerable social groups in a country where the middle class is dwindling as the divide between rich and poor is becoming bigger and bigger. Although many of the workers have trades, it is difficult to find work, and the social system in South Africa is practically non-existent. These men and women are fraught with despair, and will do anything to help themselves and their families survive – even at the cost of their lives. To make matters worse, the end result is mostly a pittance. Some Zama Zamas go home with as little as R100 a day (around US$13.50). Can you live on that?