Zama zamas: Trying to make ends meet in the face of the apocalypse

Reports of deaths and injuries to informal miners (known as zama zamas) have a way of dividing people, with organisations like the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) calling for an intensified crackdown on unlawful mining operations and the arrest of “illegal miners”, while others like the Legal Resources Centre are calling for the better regulation of informal mining to protect miners from environmental and social dangers.

While the debate rages in the media space, informal miners continue to die. The Mines Rescue Services (MRS), a non-profit organisation assisting to recover and rescue mine workers, reported that 22 bodies of informal miners were recovered in 2015 while, so far this year, they have recovered 24 bodies.

The Legal Resources Centre has been working with mining-affected communities and activists in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, where abandoned coal mines cover a large portion of some areas. Activists are rightly concerned about the working conditions in the mines and the environmental damage the coal seam is causing in the area.

The coal seams can clearly be seen in this picture – Ermelo April 2016

I was part of a team of LRC staff meeting four activists who wanted to show us the conditions that prevail in that area and the ends that miners will go to in order to make a living. Zama zama loosely means “trying to make ends meet”.

Upon arrival on a windy April day, we were shocked by what we saw. There was strong heat and smoke coming from the coal seams that had been on fire for months, the activists told us. These blistering fires are blazing through cavities of abandoned coalfields on the outskirts of Goldview Colliery. The earth we walked on was filled with sinkholes caused by the burning layers of coal beneath the surface.

As we came closer, the ecological damage the fires are causing became obvious. Trees and other plants were damaged; the land is rendered redundant, desert-like. Nothing can grow here.

There was no avoiding inhaling the smoke. Coughing, we imagined the long-term effects for people living here, exposed to it daily. The activists tell of rivers and boreholes that are polluted by acids coming from the mines – poisonous for people, fish and wildlife. It’s perilous terrain for anyone or any animal, who risk falling into open pits and shafts.

Damage to the landscape is hazardous to animals and people – Ermelo April 2016

With coal seams blazing on one side, scores of zama zamas mine the abandoned shaft on the other. They are community members from Ermelo and surroundings.

We ventured down the mine, squeezing past the main entrance designed for a wheel-barrow. It was very dark. Miners had torches; we used our phones for light. Though we could not get an exact sense of how many people were inside, we speculated there were around 50 people down the shaft.

There are many pathways but some had collapsed. Despite the obvious dangers, the miners chatted and joked with us and we learned about certain rules they abide by as they work; one of the most important being the “no smoking” rule. Smoking can spark underground fires because of the remaining flammable chemicals the previous formal mining company had used. They abandoned the mine, taking little responsibility for the degradation they caused, nor rehabilitating the area.

We went deeper into the mine. We could feel the heat coming from the blazing coal seams on the other side. This situation is dangerous and miners are exposed to it every day of their lives.

The coal seam is on fire and smoke can be seen coming out from underground shafts – Ermelo April 2016

One activist amongst the four is a former zama-zama and he told us that many people in Ermelo do not have much of a choice than to risk their lives underground. Reports also points out that several miners have lost their lives in the past few years in the same mine. On 3 July 2015, in the Highvelder newspaper, it was reported that several illegal miners have perished in the mine over the past few years and authorities seem at loss to prevent these activities.

Many people in the area live in terrible circumstances. Unemployment rates are high. The miners confirmed that the little money they earn by selling coal to local communities is their only source of income. “There are no jobs; that is why you see us here”, says one zama-zama.

A couple of hours later, we leave the mine shaft. We were all experiencing back pains. We were then led to an informal settlement in the Gert Sibande District Municipality, not very far from the abandoned mines. We spoke to two community members.

The conditions in abandoned mines pose a threat to the lives of the informal miners – Ermelo April 2016

A mother of an 11-year-old, Busisiwe Mkhwananzi, told us that she had to move from where she used to live because of the fire that used to spark up inside her house.

The sparks are caused by the chemicals under the ground. That, with the electric cables which run beneath, sparks fire more especially during rainy weather conditions.

“The problems of mines in our area had been reported to authorities, including the ward councillor, but nothing has been done about it so far”, she said. Busisiwe was told to leave the area by representatives of her ward councillor because it was no longer safe for her and her daughter to continue staying there.

“They never gave me any alternative housing or perhaps show me a site where I could build and start a new life”, she said.

There is widespread concern of methane gas and other toxic gases being released through surface cracks as informal mining continues. There have been reports that houses have caught alight due to these flammable gases been released into homes that are built on top of old coal seams.

Coal extracted informally is the life-blood of the informal settlements in Ermelo, but the abandoned mines pose a threat to human health and the environment – April 2016

We also spoke to Sphiwe Mjuza. She is frustrated by the conditions they live under, which are dangerous and could lead to loss of life. “We are always on guard; constantly monitoring our children when they are playing because any danger can happen unexpectedly. We also fear that elderly people living in this area will not be able to escape in the face of imminent danger”, Mjuza said.

The abandoned coal mines and the continuation of informal mining not only affect miners when they are exposed to collapses and the inhalation of smoke, but also pose significant health and environmental hazards to the Ermelo community at large. This is a community stuck between a rock and hard place and the situation calls for action so that no more lives are lost.

By: Lucky Mabasa

Lucky Mabasa is a communications intern at the Legal Resource Centre.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

Update: European Court to consider right to education

During the course of today, 20 October 2016, the European Court of Human Rights will receive submissions drafted by the Legal Resources Centre, acting as an intervening third party in the case of KOSA v Hungary.

In this case, Amanda Kosa, the applicant who is part of a minority group, is arguing that the Hungarian government has breached her right under the European Convention on Human Rights, to an education free from discrimination. The bus service to her previous school was cancelled and children from her community are now attending a school closer to their settlement, forcing the children to be separated from their fellow Hungarian learners.

The European Court will be asking three questions:

  • Have Hungarian domestic remedies been exhausted?
  • Has there been a breach of the applicant’s right to an education free from discrimination?
  • Has the applicant been denied the right to education through the cancellation of the bus service connecting her neighbourhood with a school providing integrated education for children from various social backgrounds?

In our submissions, we argue that –

  • Our High Court has, drawing on international law (including article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and General Comment 13 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) held that in appropriate cases, upholding the right to basic education in section 29 of the Constitution requires the provision State-funded transportation for learners.
  • The evidence of the importance of this finding is stark in the Eastern Cape, where much of our work takes place. The need for learners to walk very long distances to school often leads to students missing days of school, dropping out of school, as well as being victims of criminal acts during their daily commute on foot.
  • It is our submission that the provision of State-funded scholar transportation, in appropriate cases, is a necessary aspect of the fulfilment of any right to education.
  • This is especially true when those requiring the fulfilment of their right to education have faced historical unfair discrimination, such as minority groups, and a denial of access to education would perpetuate this discrimination.

The submissions are attached: kosa-v-hungary-lrc-written-submissions-final-draft

European Court of Human Rights to consider Right to Education



Photo: LRC attorney Mandira Subramony  with the Eastern Cape learners in their long walk to access education facilities in the province

The LRC have been granted leave to intervene at the European Court of Human Rights, in a matter against the government of Hungary. The case of Amanda Kosa v Hungary challenges a possible infringement of the right to education in the European Convention on Human Rights.

What’s the case about?

Huszar telep is a settlement in the Nyiregyhaza region of Hungary. It is made of up mostly Romani people. The Roma or Romani people are a nomadic ethic minority group, living in a number of countries in Europe – including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia and Hungary. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities on the continent.

In 2011, the Greek Catholic Church in Nyiregyhaza opened a segregated school, near Huszar telep, serving only Roma children from the settlement. Prior to this, the Roma children had been attending an integrated school, 2.3 kilometres away from the settlement. The mayor and town council of Nyiregyhaza had been providing a bus to take the children to the integrated school. At the same time as the establishment of the Greek Catholic school, the children’s bus was stopped by the town council.

Amanda Kosa, the applicant before the ECtHR, is one of the pupils attending the segregated school.

The Chance for Children Foundation (a foundation representing rights of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Hungary) took the case to court in 2011, suing the Greek Catholic Church for illegal segregation.

The case made its way through the Hungarian legal system, ending at the Kuria – the highest court in Hungary. The Kuria ruled in favour of the Greek Catholic Church, on the basis that the free choice of religion at school supersedes the prohibition of segregation. However, those in favour of integrated schooling do not believe that the school was being chosen because it was being run by Greek Catholics, but rather because it was close to the settlement and parents could not afford the necessary city bus transport after the subsidised bus had been cancelled.

The European Court of Human Rights will be asking three questions:

  1. Have Hungarian domestic remedies been exhausted?
  2. Has there been a breach of the applicant’s right to an education free from discrimination?
  3. Has the applicant been denied the right to education through the cancellation of the bus service connecting her neighbourhood with a school providing integrated education for children from various social backgrounds?

So why are we getting involved?

Question (3) is where the LRC’s input will be important.

In 2015, the LRC won an important case in the Grahamstown High Court. See Tripartite Steering Committee and another v Minister of Basic Education and others Case no 1830/2015 (26 June 2015). In it, Plasket J, finding in our favour, stated unequivocally that, “where scholars’ access to schools is hindered by distance and an inability to afford the costs of transport, the State is obliged to provide transport to them in order to meet its obligations in terms of s 7(2) of the Constitution, to promote and fulfil the right to basic education” (paragraph 19).

In light of our work on scholar transport in the Eastern Cape, we can play an important part in demonstrating to the ECtHR how and why the provision of transport to scholars impacts on the fulfilment of the right to education.

The ECtHR is not able to overturn the decision of the Kuria. It will decide only whether there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols, and may award “just satisfaction” (i.e reparations) if the internal law of Hungary has allowed only partial reparation to be made.[1]

Our written submissions are due on 20 October 2016.


[1] See Article 41

Women’s Month 2016: Child marriages in South Africa

Child marriage affects girls in more ways than one. They are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers at the age that they get married. Child marriage results in girls being disempowered, dependent on their husbands and deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety.

The health of a child bride diminishes from the date of her marriage, as she “becomes a woman” before her body has been allowed to develop naturally. As a result of her age, she is less able to negotiate and articulate her rights to bodily autonomy. Access to healthcare and sexual reproductive healthcare, in particular, is difficult in the rural context and is exacerbated within the context of a rural girl child.

She stands a greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and during childbirth. Her exposure to HIV/AIDS infection, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, increases. In the context of poverty, where she is reliant on her husband and her in-laws to care for her, she is at greater risk of having her rights to healthcare denied.

Many girls suffer domestic violence from their husbands and even from their in-laws. Her ability to protect herself and to have her bodily integrity respected is ignored. In instances where her own family has consented to the marriage, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave her abusive husband.

Child marriage usually means the end of a girl’s formal education. Once married, girls are burdened with their new responsibilities as wives and mothers and often stay at home as a result. A girl child’s husband or in-laws may not be supportive of her education and burden her with new adult responsibilities, leaving her no time to attend school. She may become entrenched in the cycle of poverty because, with little access to education, her opportunities to seek employment outside of the home diminish.

What can be done?

Government should set clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage and remove any laws which allow for parental consent, for the following reasons:

  • Setting the legal age for marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready.
  • The existence of laws which prohibit child marriage is an important tool to help those working to dissuade families and communities from marrying off their daughters as children.
  • It is imperative that children are recognised in the law as being children and are afforded the full protection of the law. When a child does not have the right to vote or enter into other contracts before 18, why is marriage allowed?
  • Ending child marriage is not only the right thing to do, but is also an economically practical decision for empowering young female leaders who can support themselves and uplift their communities.

This post was developed as an informative tool for women. Please visit your nearest LRC office for further advice and assistance. Written by Naushina Rahim