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.


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

Women’s Month 2016: What to do if you are raped

What is rape?

Forced sexual penetration of a person’s (male or female) genital organs, anus, mouth, or any other part of the body with a penis or an object that can be used for sexual penetration.

Who can be raped?

Any person of any age: this includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons, as well as men and women.

Who can commit a rape?

It can be anyone: a stranger, a friend, a family member, someone you know, a boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife or partner, or a group of people.

What should you do if you are raped?

Find a safe place and tell the first person who you trust what happened, especially if you need medical attention.

If you want to report the matter (but you don’t have to)

1. Go to the police station as soon as possible. If the police do not allow you to report the rape, DO NOT GIVE UP. You have a right to report the rape, so speak to the Station Commander, or go to another police station. Later on, you can make a complaint against the police officer that didn’t help you.
2. If you are hurt, first go to the hospital or doctor. Tell the doctor that you were raped so that you can get appropriate treatment. The police must also take you to the hospital so they can collect evidence left on your body/clothes.
3. If you want to report the matter to the police, then it is best not to shower/bath before you have been examined by a doctor. Do not throw away or wash the clothes you were wearing, as it is evidence of the crime.
4. If you change your clothes, keep the clothes you were wearing when the rape happened in a paper bag or wrap them in newspaper. Do not put them in a plastic packet as this can destroy evidence.
5. Do not eat or drink anything or take any medication before the doctor examines you. If you did, it is important that you tell the doctor who examines you what you have eaten or what medication you have taken.

Get the following from a doctor (even if you do not report the rape to the police)

1. An HIV test and Anti-Retroviral Treatment within 72 hours to prevent HIV infection. This treatment is called Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
You must go back to the doctor for further HIV tests and take tablets every 28 days so that the treatment works properly.
You can ask that your rapist be tested for HIV/AIDS and that this status be disclosed to you.
2. Antibiotics to prevent you from getting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
3. Morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy.
4. Clear instructions on how and when to take the different medications.
5. Referrals for support and counselling.

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

16 Days: The Vulnerability of Child Migrants

During 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, the Legal Resources Centre will be sharing the stories of survivors of gender based violence who fled their countries to seek asylum in South Africa. Many women, children and sexual and gender non-conforming persons endure horrific hardship, sexual persecution, assault, rape and discrimination in their countries. When they arrive in South Africa their hardship does not end. Some women experience sexual persecution while crossing the border, while others may experience oppression, intolerance and discrimination while trying to create a life in South Africa. When they enter the asylum seeker process, they often endure further persecution. These are their stories.

The vulnerability of child migrants

G was born in Malawi. She lived with her mother who is unemployed and very sick. Her mother could not take proper care of G, who would miss school to look after her mother; sometimes for more than 2 weeks at a time. Her father was working in South Africa and providing money for the family but it was not enough to cover the family’s basic needs. When she was 15, G’s father sent for her and her sister. She now lives with him in South Africa.

In January this year, G and her sister went back to Malawi to visit her mother; a trip that her father had arranged with the help of a truck driver. On their way back to South Africa, the truck driver made a stop at a garage to rest for the night. While her little sister was sleeping, the truck driver made advances at G who rejected them. The truck driver then tried forcing himself on her and she started screaming. This woke up her little sister, who hit him, which made the truck driver let G go. After that incident, the truck driver refused to give the sisters food or water and refused to stop the truck when the sisters wanted to use the bathroom. They did not tell anyone about this incident because the truck driver had threatened to kill their father.

A study of unaccompanied minors travelling across the border conducted by Save the Children in 2007 found that children are the most vulnerable group of people and more likely to be exploited by “guides”. More recent reports by UNICEF, operating in the border town of Musina, indicate that this vulnerability is ongoing. Their reports indicate that the dangers faced by unaccompanied children include being targeted by criminals and being vulnerable to sexual violence on the border. Guides were commonly the perpetrators of violence against the children and were the most likely group to elicit bribes from the children. The study found that 14% of children had been assaulted whilst attempting to cross the border.