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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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