Turf wars for abandoned mines in South Africa have been on the rise as commodity prices continue to suffer. Africa’s AFP reported that South Africa has approximately 6,000 mines that companies have been abandoned in the face of falling profits.
The mines attract thousands illegal miners -- known as zama zamas (Zulu for “those who try their luck”) -- who descend into the ageing shafts and wells, sometimes living for months underground digging for nuggets of gold and some of those groups are waging violent attacks on one another.
In September, about 20 people were killed in an outbreak of gang violence around Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa's mining industry, known as the “City of Gold.”
“There is an increasing level of violence, gang war and intimidation by illegal miners,” said the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, the country’s mining industry employers’ organization, in a report this year.
“Illegal mining activities and organized crime are interrelated. Illegal miners are often heavily armed, have explosives and set ambushes and body traps for employees, security and rival groups of illegal miners.”
In an attempt to counter the mounting gang activity, South Africa's police launched an illegal mining task force in September.
Still, the police are unable to tackle the problem directly, fearful of operating in the unfamiliar mines.
“Due to the informal nature of the trenches used by illegal miners, it is too dangerous for the law enforcement agencies to go underground,” admitted police spokesman Dlamini Lungelo.
Gangs “kidnap people underground and use them as their workforce,” said Sandile Nombeni, who works with non-profit Ekurhuleni Environmental Organisation.
Gangs take a cut for every 12-kilo (26-pound) bag of ground mined, significantly reducing a miner's personal share.
“You need to provide them with a full plate of soil,” said an illegal miner from Zimbabwe, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal. "If you don't do that, they can kill you."
“Since there is no work, this is how many people get by,” said Nombeni, who is calling for the legalisation of the informal mining sector, which the Chamber of Mines of South Africa estimates represents 5 to 10 percent of the country's annual gold production.
"In Zimbabwe, there is no more illegal mining. They have formalized small scale mining. And they don't have any of the problems we are having,” said David van Wyk, lead researcher at Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit organization that monitors corporate social responsibility.