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The deadly side of glittering gold

More than 80 'zama-zamas' die in latest illegal mine tragedy

WELKOM, South Africa — Illegal miners here are called zama-zamas, or chance-takers, because they put their lives at considerable risk in the hope of striking it rich deep in the bowels of South Africa’s gold mines.

The overwhelming stench outside the Welkom mortuary is a pungent reminder that the gamble doesn’t always pay off.

More than 80 zama-zamas died last month in a fire that broke out nearly a mile below ground, in Harmony Gold Mine's Eland shaft, an abandoned part of the mine so dangerous that no rescue teams were sent to look for survivors. The mine’s owner and local authorities became aware of the tragedy only when the illegal miners requested body bags.

Now, every day the badly decomposed bodies are laid out on the floor of an unrefrigerated hall for identification by family members. Michael Xaba was one of dozens hoping — or dreading — to find answers one recent afternoon. He feared the worst for a friend who has not been seen for weeks.

“He was not even there when his mom died,” Xaba said. “If he’s here, I can go and tell his brothers and sisters.”

Words failed Xaba when he was asked to describe what he saw after coming out of the mortuary, his mouth and nose covered by the collar of his jacket, but like many others that day, he did not find what he was looking for.

The accident — one of the deadliest in recent memory — sheds light on an activity that strives hard to remain in the shadows. The illegal miners bribe security guards or enter through  unattended shafts and then walk for miles through a maze of galleries to reach their destination. They often make deals with mine employees who sell them food, allowing them to stay for weeks on end underground.

South Africa is the world's third largest gold miner, producing 220 metric tons in 2008, and the illegal mining has also become a big operation, feeding on the country's widespread unemployment and poverty. Because a mine’s gold reserves are only grossly estimated and much of the illegal activity goes undetected, the extent of gold taken by the zama-zamas remains nearly a complete mystery.

“We say it’s a problem, but to say how big a problem is effectively almost impossible because you don’t know how much they’re taking,” said Anton van Achterbergh, legal adviser to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa. “They don’t clear it through anybody, so there is no way of measuring what they steal.”