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The lure of gold



MASERU – By Lesotho’s standards, Thabiso Sephula, should be a struggling peasant farmer.
He is a man of little education and has no special skills.

The small perch of land in front of his house in Mafeteng is not enough to produce enough for his family.

The harvest has been poor for years because the soil is exhausted (soil exhaustion). Perennial droughts have also affected their harvests.

Yet Sephula is not living in abject poverty like his peers and neighbours.
At 40, he has a beautiful home with expensive furniture. His kraal is full of cattle and two cars are parked in his yard. This is in addition to three tractors.

Sephula made his fortunes in the South African mines.
He doesn’t have a formal job in the mines though. Rather, he is one of the hundreds of Basotho men illegally mining gold in South Africa.

Known as Zama-Zamas or Makhomosha, the men sneak into abandoned mines and spend months mining underground. Most don’t have protective clothing like overalls, helmets, gumboots or gloves.

Often, the dark shafts lead them to other sections of the mine that are still legally mined.
Clashes between Zama-Zamas and mine security guards, often fatal, are common.

At times there are bloody fights between rival Zama-Zama gangs underground.
There are reports of gang members bludgeoning each other to death when they have to share the spoils.

Many Basotho men have been brought back home in coffins after being killed in these clashes.

Those that keep the peace and avoid violent encounters have to contend with the dangers underground.

Because the shafts were last mined decades ago, unsupported roofs sometimes cave in in to crush the men. Others fall to their death in shafts while some have drowned in dams.

Then there are dangerous gases that can suffocate them to death.

Sephula says he has seen dead bodies killed, and stabbed while others stoned to death.

Once they reimage from the belly of the earth with the fruits of the months’ toil, they have to be on the lookout for robbers waiting for them on the surface.

The police too will be waiting to arrest them.
Even the trips back home can be dangerous as the miners are targeted for robbery.

Crossing the border back home is an equally perilous task because most would have either overstayed in South Africa or crossed illegally.

“You need a lot of skills to find the gold and process it underground,” Sephula says.

“Good things come for those who wait.”

Sephula knows that he is dicing with death but says he has no other options to earn a living.
He is driven by both desperation and potential rewards.

Home doesn’t hold much for him. He has watched his peers who refuse to join Zama-Zamas wallow in poverty. The few that work can barely make ends meet.

Sephula can make as much as M200 000 after spending six months underground.

He says so far things are going well despite the dangers.
But his family always worry when he leaves home because they know he might die in the mines or get arrested.

Two weeks ago, 71 Basotho spent three weeks trapped in a mine in Welkom.

This was after the mine authorities blocked their exit hole. It is believed some died from dehydration and hunger after running out of supplies.

Two Basotho men were brought up to the surface dead. The Lesotho consular in Orkney, Liranyane Thamae, said out of 95 illegal miners brought to the surface 13 were Mozambicans.
Two Mozambicans were dead.

“There were also four living Zimbabweans and one South African,” Thamae said.

“All of those who are alive are currently arrested and detained at different police stations.”

Foreign affairs principal secretary, Thabo Motoko, told a press conference that illegal activities are highly organised.

“One would say the crime is highly organised, for us to address it we need to find the root cause,” he said.

“Not any person buys gold, we need to find the kingpins so that the issue is addressed.”

Motoko said it is the South African government, particularly the Ministry of Mining and Natural Resources, that should stop illegal mining.

“It is not going to stop until we find the root cause.”

Last year the then Lesotho Consular General in Orkney in South Africa, Selimo Thabane, told thepost that hunger and poverty were pushing Basotho into illegal mining.

Thabane said this after 11 Basotho men were found burned close to a mine in Orkney. Five of the deceased were from Motete constituency in Butha- Buthe district.

It was suspected that they had been in gang battles over gold.

After the incident, the leader of Movement for Economic Change (MEC), Selibe Mochoboroane, who was accompanied by the Principal Chief of Likhoele, Lerotholi Seeiso, visited the illegal miners to try and foster some peace.

The fights and killings receded for a few months but gained momentum again.

Tšepang Manare, who has been a Zama-Zama in South Africa for the past seven years, says he learned tricks of the trade from some Zimbabweans who used to be illegal gold miners in their home country before crossing into South Africa.

Manare said most Zama-Zama gangs have highly organised operations and work in shifts.
There are those who dig and those who process the gold.

Some are there to supply food, cigarettes, beer, and torch batteries to those underground.

He said the bosses are responsible for getting the gold to the market and bribing guards at the disused mines to allow their teams to let in their zama-zama teams.

“A lot of cash is paid to allow these people to pass through the shaft to go down underground. Taking food underground is risky and costly,” said Manare.

A loaf of bread costs M100 while a single tobacco cigarette costs M10.

“The food is expensive because it is risky taking it down there to the miners underground. The good thing is that the miners have the money to pay for the provisions.”

Sephula says he had made enough money to stop illegal mining. He says his tractors make good business, especially during planting season.

But he has no intention of stopping.
He has returned to the mines again and will see his family after a few months.

“I will die there. There is nothing as tempting as money,” he says.

Majara Molupe

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