I’m a writer who is a so-called ‘”illegal miner,’” one of the names used to mock us here in South Africa. As I write this, I have lived in Springs, a gold town in South Africa, 56 km east of Johannesburg, the country’s best known city. I see people around me breaking stones to look for gold ore and, as a writer, I join them too.
We the so-called “illegal miners” in South Africa are also mocked as “illegal immigrants.” Of course, nothing about our life as marginalized people is illegal. We are simply undocumented miners; but of course we are not truly “undocumented” because the earth down under our feet where gold and other minerals reside, knows us.
Most people digging for gold ore here in Springs, South Africa, are immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe, like me, or Mozambique or Lesotho, countries that also border South Africa. This came about after a British opportunist, Cecil John Rhodes, discovered the world’s richest gold belt at Witwatersrand, in South Africa, in the late 1880s. A mad rush of people from all over the world during the last 100 years decamped to South Africa to find gold and make their fortunes. Hence, in the last 100 years South Africa supplied the world’s biggest gold output. And of course, you guessed it, white immigrants and white gold companies like De Beers, Goldfield, and Anglo Gold, were the biggest winners in, of course, a Black country.
Today gold is in decline in South Africa Mines have become too deep, and exploration and extraction have become expensive. However, thousands of shuttered, abandoned gold mines from the last century still litter South Africa, as mountains of decades-old soil that we call “mwotoro,” meaning “gold soil heap.”
These abandoned gold mines have become sites where poor, “undocumented immigrants,” like me, break stones with a hammer and wash the residue with water to extract tiny grams of gold daily. Most of the gold diggers around me are people with no passports, because where they come from, say Mozambique or Zimbabwe (my country), passports are too expensive, and having one does not better our lives. Here in South Africa, we’re not welcome with or without a passport, and Black foreigners are always called names like “illegal immigrant”, and “illegal gold miner.”
The world of a so-called “illegal miner” involves climbing under a rock, 1km down into a hole that leads to the dark depths of an abandoned gold mine. I have made these climbs nearly 100 times in the last 5 years. With a torch fixed to my helmet to shine the way, I carry a pick, hammer, and dishes in a sack. The climb down into a disused mine shaft can consume 4 hours, spent walking and crawling under the thinnest rock passages, where sharp edges and unstable rocks that the licensed mine companies dynamited 20 years previous remain, abandoned. If my back or helmet disturbs those rocks they can tumble and we’d be lucky to retrieve my body. At last I reach a site where I hammer at the greenish-looking rock (a sign of gold ore) and put it into my dishes. Every evening we crush the day’s rock haul and wash it in through sack hoping to separate the tiny gold ore from useless rocks. This process takes up to a week underground, in places where the air is sweet with chemical odors that the original miners left decades ago. It’s backbreaking work.
Sometimes a week of working one kilometer down a disused mine can bring just one gram of gold, or nothing. Our food under the earth for a week usually consists of cheap carbonated drinks, fish in tins, and bread. Carbonated soft drinks are our way of avoiding the water from the streams in the disused mines, which are usually poisoned by the chemicals mining corporations used during to extract the gold. At night around 11 pm (there is no day-night visual marker one km under the earth because it’s pitch black all day and night) we retire to sleep on bare rocks, each one guarding his few grams of gold ore to his chest, in case of robbers raiding at night. This is when I take my cellphone in hand and open to the notes section and type descriptions of what I see and try to fashion a diary of my life as a so-called “illegal miner.” If I die underground and my body cannot be retrieved, at least my tiny cellphone and its diary could be delivered to my two children in honor of my memory.
I went to school in Zimbabwe and reached the Cambridge Ordinary Level high school certificate. I could not go further because family poverty made us begin working quite young. I remember being good at history subjects. With options limited in Zimbabwe, I crossed the border into South Africa here where I and thousands of others find ourselves as unregistered miners, what the corporate newspapers and anti-immigrant politicians enjoy calling “illegal miners.”
We are accused of all sorts of things—violence, robberies, and bleeding South Africa’s economy. But we are not any of that. We are not criminals and we reject crime. We are peaceful people, scrapping for gold ore in sites long abandoned by Western mining corporations, places that the South African government has failed to either seal or rehabilitate.
Now that I have written to you about how we dig and hammer for tiny scraps of gold ore underground, I will end by writing to you about how we climb out of the abandoned mines after a week of toiling there. Coming out with the gold ore is probably the riskiest part of the journey. Along the way, one has to avoid gangs of robbers who demand a share of the gold ore or a flat fee of ZAR 1000 ($6). These gangs are not to be messed with. We miners simply accede to their demands, so that we may pass through. If we carry not enough ore, they strip away our cell phones. For me, that would be too painful. As a miner-writer, the cellphone is the most important tool I use to document the most precarious moments of my life, digging for dirty gold ore under the earth, under the specter of death.
From my cellphone notes typing section, dear world, meet me for the first time.
22 October, 2022