Discovered bodies brings up Orkney's sitting resentment of illegal miners

Illegal mining in Orkney doesn't stop, even when it becomes more deadly for those who have to do it.

Ariston Road, Orkney, where 14 bodies were found, presumably of illegal miners who died from gas inhalation. Picture: Supplied

JOHANNESBURG - Two hours away from the busyness of Johannesburg lies Orkney, on the banks of the Vaal River. Some would even describe it as a sleepy town, with typical characteristics of a mining community. It is a scenic reminder of the province's glory days during the country's gold rush, giving rise to areas such as this.

So much has changed since, and most of the mines in this unassuming town are exhausted.

But beneath the surface lie millions of ounces of unmined gold, fuelling a booming – and deadly – illicit industry.

The pursuit of precious metals has given rise to more syndicates clamouring for a stake in the deadly trade in South Africa. We were once again reminded of the scourge of illegal mining and the dangers thereof this week when the bodies of 20 men were found dumped in the gold mining town of Orkney in North West.

Police believed they were so-called zama zamas, or illegal miners.

They often risked their lives through their underground workings. If it’s not the constantly lurking threat of rival gangs, there is also the real danger of dying below the earth’s surface through poisonous gas inhalation, explosions or rockfalls.

Less than a kilometer from Orkney's residential area, there is an open veld where the ventilation shaft of the Lawrence Park’s mine is situated. The shaft - which is the only entrance and exit point for illegal miners - is sealed with a tangled barbed wire. But that attempt to keep the illegal miners at bay has proved futile.

Hundreds of men go down this shaft in search of precious metals and emerge bleary-eyed weeks, sometimes months later. This is also the same shaft where the bodies of six men were found dumped this week, wrapped in white plastic bags.

As Eyewitness News approached the area, three men wearing balaclavas - each carrying a shotgun - suddenly appeared from the bushes, claiming they were private security guards. One warned that bullets could come flying from any angle at any time.

"There are still people who are inside. New guys came, they were sitting here making some phone calls. They do come out. We are just not allowed to have contact with them," the guard said.

Locals say illegal miners are known to hire their own security guards to protect them, but also to tip them off ahead of police raids and attacks from rivals.

The unknown armed men won't say if they were hired by the mine.

Meanwhile, residents who live only a stone's throw away from the abandoned shaft are constantly worried about their safety. They have sleepless night due to the sounds of bullets coming from the veld.

"We don't sleep because of the zama-zamas. They fire their guns every night," one man said.

A few kilometres away on Ariston Road near the railway tracks is a pungent, unmistakable smell. That is where the bodies of 14 other men were found. The grass is flattened under the weight of the corpses and the amount of time they were there.

North West police spokesperson Adele Myburgh said the bodies were left out in the open for anyone to see.

"As you can see, behind me, the bodies were thrown over here. You would think that the suspects or the people involved would want somebody to find the bodies. That's why they were placed here. As to what happened and where it happened, we still need to clarify that."

Names and contact details were attached to some of the makeshift body bags, a practice zama-zamas have adopted to aid with identification. This has proven helpful to the police who have confirmed they have identified and alerted the family of at least one of the 20 men so far.

"We found tags with the names, which we suspect could be the deceased names, inside, as well as contact details of the next of kin. Some of the telephone numbers that we got from inside indicated that those people are from Lesotho," she said.

Pushed by high levels of poverty and unemployment, many migrants risk their lives working in abandoned mines in South Africa. There is often competition between rival syndicates, while others have been killed by collapsing mineshafts or, as was the case of these 20 bodies – by poisonous gas emitted underground.

The situation is deeply sensitive and is rooted in fear and resentment within the community. Many residents are reluctant to share their views on illegal mining operations. Others, though, say their once small but modest town is under siege.

"This is not the first time this happens. They are dangerous and live in our community," one man said.

A woman asked: "Why don't they get jobs like the rest of us, or start an honest business?"

Apart from the security threats, the activities underground could be detrimental to the stability of the town’s infrastructure. Geoscience professor at Wits University, Raymond Durrheim, told Eyewitness News that what made the situation even more hazardous was that illegal operators had very little understanding of underground rock formations.

Durrheim said the government shrugged off calls to step in and avert potential catastrophe lurking beneath the town.

North West Community Safety MEC Sello Lehari, who visited both locations during the week, has instead urged police to step up their efforts to curb illegal mining activity. Lehari said that while poverty propels most illegal miners into the industry, ruthless criminal syndicates were equally responsible.

However, organisations like the Bench Marks Foundation - an advocacy group that monitors good governance in the social, economic and environmental spheres - say there needs to be a shift from the position that every problem in South Africa needs policing.

Performance chief researcher David van Wyk said regulation and legislation needed to be reviewed for the highly demanded work.

"We believe that if the situation is not regulated it is going to get worse and worse. The reason why the situation exists is because there are 2,000 abandoned mines in South Africa [while] there are about 34,000 zama-zamas," he explained.

While miners risk it all digging for remnants of gold, the question remains: who benefits from the illegal practice?

The South African Human Rights Commission’s provincial manager, Osmond Mngomezulu, said there were various levels of illegal mining that existed, with each one strongly connected and supported by networks.

"It's a complex network where there are individuals from across the continent who are involved in these activities and who are recruiting those who will go and extract the minerals and have them processed through that network," he said.

A 2017 report by the Minerals Council of South Africa estimated that the annual commercial value of illegal mining and illicit dealings in precious metals amounted to about R7 billion. But because these activities were illegal, it is near impossible to determine an exact value of economic impact on the industry.

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