Notes on Illegal and artisanal mining, Johannesburg
These notes are really stories about informal, ‘illegal’, or ‘artisanal’ miners in Johannesburg, South Africa. With the price of gold as high as it has been, these informal miners mine and produce their own gold using extremely simple techniques. They earn a reasonable living from it.
Elliot Moyo, with whom I did this research, is my MA student at the University of Witwatersrand
For pictures, go to
Roodeport Artisanal Mining, Johannesburg, 2013
30 June 2013
Roodeport Artisanal Mining, Johannesburg, 2013
30 June 2013
This was the second visit to the gold mining area near Roodeport. The artisanal mines are in a heavily mined area that has been known as a gold producing area since the original discovery of gold in the Johannesburg area. I was surprised that there is still sufficient gold in the earth to reward teams of artisanal miners, but at current gold prices, there clearly is still a great deal. Many teams of from 5 to 10 or more men a working this reef intensively and generating reasonable livings from it.
The area is on the margin of Roodeport, a western suburb of Johannesburg about 19 km from the city centre.
We knew from a previous trip that there were artisanal mines in the area, but the first thing we noticed on that Sunday were the sacred spaces or meeting grounds of many independent evangelical churches. Each was marked by a circle of stones. One had a fire burning the centre of it, with poles marking the boundary.
There were considerable middens of ash nearby, so the fires were a constant feature of this ritual landscape.
We walked across the open land with the ‘churches’ marked in stones on the ground, and moved into a thin screen of bush. Almost immediately we found ourselves at the entrance to a small mine, with broken rock and other debris all around.
In the near distance, we saw at first a few human figures standing quietly amongst the bushes, and then I noticed what looked like a pile of blankets on a slight hillock, covering black bags that looked to be satchels or backpacks of some sort. As we watched, several fo the blankets got up and moved towards us. They were men from Lesotho who worked these mines, and who had been resting or sleeping that early Sunday morning on the small hillock piled with black bags. As we found later, the bags contained the concentrated ore that they had mined. Each one must have held 20-30 kgs of gold-rich earth.
Soon ten men surrounded us, a single team of miners who had just emerged from the adit we had seen. They were initially somewhat curious, and then began to be aggressive as the enquired what we wanted. They thought that we must be gold buyers, and when we began to explain that we were researchers from the university, they became very sceptical. Understandably, they said they had nothing to do with universities, and wanted nothing to do with us unless we could give them a better price for their gold than they were getting, and if we could buy it. Unfortunately, we could do neither.
We had some serious explaining to do before they relaxed and decided that we were not a threat. As I sometimes do in such situations, while Elliot was talking, I greeted the others warmly, and moved to stand as close as possible to the most dangerous looking one in the group. He was dressed as a local, and was not wearing the Lesotho blanket that all of the others were wearing. I have found that by moving close to such people, and including them in conversation, and touching them when appropriate makes them less immediately dangerous, and in any case does not allow them room to swing a stick or a bottle. The group quieted as we talked, and eventually gave us numbers for further contact and most of them began to drift away.
One who appeared to be the youngest stayed near us, and began to speak with me in English. His English was fluent and relaxed. He clearly had fairly considerable education. I asked as we were leaving if I could take some pictures of the mine adits that they had created and that accessed the tunnels beneath. He guided us to a place where the sun shone down the inclinded shaft so that the interior of the timbered adit could be glimpsed in the winter morning sunlight. We took some pictures, and left.
5 July 2013
We made contact with the ‘team’ of miners through Elliot Moyo’s clever social networking in the field. He had noted that there were a number of small tradesmen on the margins of the open and bushy area where we knew the mining was taking place. Several women under a shade of sticks and cloth were selling sweets, vegetables and cigarettes, among other small items. Also there were several barbers who ran their electrical clippers from truck batteries attached to converters. These operations consisted of a small table set into the ground in the centre of a piece of plastic fibre groundcloth, 2 x 2 metres square laid out on the dry and dusty earth. The client sat in a plastic chair, and those waiting sat on rough log benches arranged to the side. Charlie was one of the barbers, and spoke ‘township SeSotho’, but he could communicate with the miners from Lesotho in more-or-less common-ground SeSotho, and Elliot could communicate with him. He also spoke English, so I could talk with him. Elliot worked out quickly that a barber in this position would certainly have many illegal/artisanal miners as clients, and might well also be an occasional miner himself. This proved to be true.
On the previous trip to the area, on Sunday, 30 June, we had discovered another team of miners from Lesotho. As an ethnic and national group they stand out because of the heavy blankets that they wear over their shoulders. These drape in a straight up-and-down fashion from their shoulders, as they use their left hand to hold them together at the top, with the help of a large safety pin, and often carry a stout wooden stick or stave in their right hand. As the blankets drape from shoulder to below the knees, and cover the arms entirely, they give the image of stark standing statues with little clothing or personality showing beneath the enveloping blanket. Some wear gold earrings, and few have beads on their wrists or around their necks. All wear hats, mostly dense, large knitted ‘watch caps’ or ‘beanies’, or open-faced balaclavas folded up and worn on top of the head, or sometimes pulled down tocover the back of the head and the neck. With the blankets pulled up to the chin, only a small portion of the face is showing. This is the mode in which these miners greet strangers—as we were—for the first time, revealing almost nothing of their dress, size, or appearance, apart from the patterns of the blanket at the distinctive hats. Each person’s hat and blanket is distinctive while concealing what lies beneath. One man of the first group, however, was wearing a nylon jacket and a black baseball cap. He was distinctive not only in dress, but because he also appeared to be the most aggressive. His dress was standard ‘South African’ township style for unemployed young men. He was only distinctive in the group of ten blanketed Sotho men.
We had exchanged contact numbers with these men on the first visit, and Elliot was able to discuss the youngest English-speaking one the possibility of meeting for an interview at a neutral place. Several had agreed. Just before the meeting, however, they had cancelled saying that they were going underground into the mines for the next four or five days, and would not be able to meet us. Charlie the barber was able to provide a link to another group of miners, and we were able to interview them on this Friday.
We met Charlie by his place of work beside the road into Roodeport. He got into the car and we turned right into Main Reef Road, then a kilometre or so west to a place called Matholaville. Matholaville was a shack settlement, or informal urban settlement that seemed to house mainly miners from both formal and informal mining sectors. Charlie pointed out one man that he knew. He had been buying food in the settlement to take to his mining team. We waited as Charlie got out of the car and walked back to the main road to meet with three miners in their long blankets.
They joined us in the car, and we returned to Roodeport after a short discussion of where they would like to go to talk. They chose a local KFC. It was extremely noisy. They wanted to eat in the car, but as we had four men packed into the back seat, there was just not enough room. The smell of woodsmoke and well-used clothing was already quite strong, and KFC fried chicken would have added an extra unnecessary pong. They were embarrassed about their blankets, and started to take them off. Elliot told them that they should be proud of their identity, and to leave them on. The young urban crowd in the restaurant did turn to look at them as they were the only clearly ‘rural’ people in the shop. We got a table and some chicken and started to talk.
They emphasized the knowledge that brought to the task. I asked then how they learned and they said, ‘from our brothers’. By this they meant mostly other men from Lesotho who have long been central to the mining industry, especially on the Reef.
The three men were aged 28, 21 and 29. They were part of a five-man team, they said. They all came from Lesotho. The 28 year old was the uncle (father’s brother) of the older 29 year old, while the 21 year old was his ‘brother in law’, that is, his sister was married to someone else in his family. They were all from the same village in Lesotho, a village that had supplied many men to the formal mines in the past. The other two members of the team were also related in some way to the others. They did not feel that ‘ethnicity or national origin was a factor, but only the ability to communicate freely and easily in their home language underground.
As the interview progressed it was clear that there were a number of linguistic differences. Charlie’s SeSotho came closest to theirs, but even so questions had to be repeated and answers discussed and carefully translated. Elliot spoke Tswana, and was able to ask questions, but could not understand the answers, so he referred to Charlie often. The miners had only a few words of English. With the complex mix of languages in Johannesburg, it was clear that easy and clear communication would be important underground.
Many of the teams come from Lesotho, but there are also from ‘Mugabe’s place’ (Zimbabwe) and from South Africa.
A team works together through the whole production cycle from mining to production of the finished gold. Teams range up to 10, but they said that any team large than that soon dissolved as the result to fighting amongst the members. They felt that they could use a few more men, and that the average size of a team was 6 to 7 men.
Typically teams shift their membership over time. This team had just returned in June from Lesotho after what they described as a big sale after a successful run of mining in November. They now had two new members from Lesotho. Members of teams come and go as other family matters or other jobs take them away from the team.
They do not wear any special protective equipment, not even helmets. Plastic helmets are cheap and widely available, but they prefer their thick knitted caps which they say is protection enough from bumping heads on the rock ceilings of the tunnels. They wear a two-piece ordinary workman’s clothing, with gumboots. They claim that it is very rare to get injured. There were no scars or other evidence of injuries on their faces or hands. They felt that there was much more danger arising from fights with other miners, both above ground and in the mine. Sometimes fights break out underground over who has discovered a good ‘belt’ (vein) and who has the right to mine it, and there are violent disputes sometimes after leaving the mine.
If each team keeps to themselves, however, fighting is minimized.
I asked them how they find gold. I suggested that they might ‘listen’ to the rock, or to ‘spirit guides’ of some sort, as the old Cornish miners used to do. They said that some did, but others did not. They noted that sometimes they could hear other miners working the same vein in neighbouring workings. Sometimes tunnels cross each other, and they can hear hammers from other teams.
For them, they were clear that they relied on their own knowledge and experience. The whole body is aware of the mine and the rock all around as they dig and tunnel, and a ‘lot of observation is involved’. They look at the rock carefully, and check its gold value by crushing samples and washing it on a dinner plate that they carry with them. They were clear about not using muti. I asked them if they were Christian, and the ‘uncle’ (28 y. o.) pulled out a rosary in fluorescent white plastic that he wore around his neck. They were all Catholic.
The youngest said that he ‘believes in his mind’, that is, that he relies on his own senses, knowledge, experience and intelligence to stay safe and to find gold. He said he did not believe in ‘rock language’, although others did.
The tool kit is simple. It consists of a spade, pick, chisel, hammer, plastic bucket, a bowl, plate and towel.
They begin the process of purifying the gold ore underground. Sometimes, however, the ore may be brough to the surface to process. In fact, we had seen up to 50 people along the Main Reef Road processing gold ore only slightly obscured from passing traffic by a thin screen of bush. Unless one knew what they were doing, however, it would not have been clear to any passing motorists what they were up to.
There are two ‘processes’. One is the ‘towel’ method, and the other is the ‘belt’ method. The ‘belt’ method is not really a method at all, but simply involves visually sorting out rich gold bearing rock from the waste. The rich veins, or ‘belts’, contain visible gold, and can be sorted visually by hand and concentrated for later processing by the towel method. Quick assays of the gold value of the ore are done by crushing a sample and washing it, or ‘panning’ it on the plate. High-grade ore collected in this way is taken to the surface in this form.
For this an ordinary terry-cloth cotton towel is laid on a ramp of earth built up out of rock and sand. A plastic sheet is placed over this, and the towel is laid down on this. The ore is ground by pounding it with harder rock to the consistency of fine sand. The sand is placed into a plastic bowl that has been pierced with many small holes, and water is poured through it using the bucket. The sand is stirred and the heavier gold falls through the sieve made from the bowl onto the towel on the plastic-sheathed ramp. As the water and gold bearing sand is washed down the towel, the gold clings to the towel and is captured. Excess sand and water run down to the bottom of the ramp and run off as waste. Periodically, the towel is ‘washed’ in the bucket, and a find gold powder accumulates at the bottom. This is collected, and taken to the surface as the primary product of the mine.
On the surface, the powdered ores are put through another sieve and towel process, and then mixed with mercury to form an amalgam with the gold. The Hg-Au amalgam is formed into pellets that are wrapped tightly in the fabric from an umbrella. The nylon fabric provides a final sieve. This is squeezed, much as the lees of beer brewing a squeezed through the beer strainer. Some of the excess mercury is forced out of the mixture in this way and is collected to be used again. The final product of this method is a hard ball of mercury-gold amalgam. This is finally ‘burnt’ with an oxy-acetylene cutting torch to drive off the mercury, leaving pure gold nuggets behind.
The gold purified in this manner is then ready to sell.
Pure gold is then sold to local ‘agents’ or sometimes to larger buyers. “A white guy in Johannesburg” is one such buyer. He is trusted. They bring their gold to him, he weighs it, and gives them cash in return. They did not know at what rate of Rand per gram he paid them, but they said they trusted him not to cheat them.
All of the local agents that they sold smaller amounts of gold to were local South Africans who lived in the shacks and townships in the immediate neighbourhood. They said that they had never dealt with foreign buyers or agents, such as Chinese, Zimbabwean, Pakistani, or others.
They did not reckon their profits in months, or weeks, but in processing cycles. Their team carried the entire process through from mining the ore to final sale of the purified gold. Each cycle of gold production took from two weeks to a month or more. This involved getting into the mine, mining the ore, bringing the concentrated ore to the surface, and then final processing and sale. At best they reported they could earn ‘around R70,000’ ( US $6800 exchange rates of early July). Sometimes it is less.
The funds from the sale a divided among the group.