How Harmony Gold tackled the zama zama problem

Despite a tragedy involving 28 missing zama zamas in the Virginia shaft in May, there’s evidence that curbing illegal mining reduces other forms of crime.
The measures include banning workers from taking food underground – a key lifeline for illegal miners who spend weeks and sometimes months underground. Image: Supplied

Speaking at the Joburg Mining Indaba this week, Harmony Gold Mining CEO Peter Steenkamp pointed to the company’s success in combatting illegal mining using a range of technologies, from biometric access to mine facilities and tighter zone control.

In May, it was reported that 31 Lesotho nationals had died in a methane gas explosion at Harmony’s old Virginia 5 shaft near Welkom in the Free State. There was only one survivor who made it to the surface. There is a probability that more bodies may be underground.


Read: The most dangerous job in the world

The shaft, situated in a remote part of the Free State, had been plugged with concrete, but the ‘plug’ was removed, either by a build-up of methane gas underground, or by illegal miners using explosives.

Due to the removal of the barriers, the zama zamas gained unauthorised access to the underground workings where residues of gold are known to exist.

They had to lower themselves one kilometre underground using ropes. What they did not know, or simply ignored, was that there was methane gas underground due to the presence of coal seams in the region.

Recovery of the bodies has been complicated by the danger of sending rescue workers into an area known to be contaminated with methane gas.

This is not the first time Free State mines have suffered a tragedy of this magnitude. Less well-known are the efforts being made by Harmony (and others) to combat illegal mining.

Jared Coetzer, head of investor relations at Harmony, tells Moneyweb that when the company launched operations to combat illegal mining in the areas around its mines in 2018, the murder rate dropped 17% in the following year, robbery was down 24%, carjacking dropped 21% and attempted murders were down 49%.

Whether the criminals found it too risky or simply moved off to other areas with easier pickings is not known.

What is certain, however, is that the war on illegal mining is intimately tied to crime rates in mining areas.


Some of the methods used by Harmony to secure mining areas include drone surveillance, 24-hour proactive security, enforcement of biometric access to mine facilities and banning workers from taking food underground – a key lifeline for zama zamas who spend weeks and sometimes months underground.

Mine employees have been known to collaborate with the zama zamas, providing them with detailed information on disused underground workings, and then keeping them supplied with food.

A loaf of bread that costs R14 in a supermarket can sell for R150 or more underground.

The zama zamas are organised into crime gangs, often based on ethnicity, and are heavily armed. That leads to turf wars of the kind seen in Riverlea and Benoni in Johannesburg. Hundreds of lives have been lost in these turf wars over recent years.

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It hasn’t helped that a specialised South African Police Service unit tasked with combatting illegal mining was shut down. The Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) believes this is a criminal problem for the police, but there is no way to monitor zama zamas working underground for weeks at a time.

What happened at the Virginia shaft in May is reminiscent of the 2019 tragedy at the Gloria coal mine in Mpumalanga when a methane gas explosion ripped through an underground tunnel, trapping 22 men inside. It is believed the men, mostly Lesotho nationals, were trying to steal cable. They made the mistake of cutting overhead electricity cables that powered the fans used to expel methane from the underground workings. Then all it presumably took was a spark to ignite the gas.

When Harmony closed surrounding operations and plugged the Virginia shaft several years ago to prevent anyone gaining access, it also prevented the ventilation of air.


This, along with the disruption of rock formations in the area, likely resulted in the build-up and release of methane.

The zama zamas appear willing to take extraordinary risks, to the extent of lowering themselves one kilometre underground by rope. When it’s time to return to the surface, a team of people on the surface haul them back up by rope.

Read: Artisanal gold mining in South Africa is out of control

Harmony has shut 46 shafts over the decades and dismantled the associated headgear. The closure of one shaft and the shutting off of fans can have an effect on other parts of the underground workings.

Billions lost each year

Various attempts have been made to estimate the cost of illegal mining in SA.

According to research by ENACT, which investigates transnational organised crime, the cost is R21 billion in lost tax revenue each year and R14 billion in lost gold production, with 10% of mined gold being smuggled out of SA annually.

Illegal mining runs deeper than zama zamas
‘You can’t have a one-stop solution to illegal mining’
‘Zama zamas are terrorists’ – Lesufi

To properly combat illegal mining across the country would cost the industry upwards of R250 billion, while the DMRE has about R50 billion saved up for closing some 6 000 abandoned mines in SA – nowhere near enough, according to the Bench Marks Foundation.

Bigger picture

“We believe we have set the benchmark for the industry when it comes to clamping down on illegal mining,” says Coetzer.

“But with this has to come ongoing social betterment in terms of providing work and business opportunities in the areas where we operate. An example of this is our investment in our orebodies to sustain and create jobs across South Africa. In the Orkney area, we have created a trust and donated an old rock dump to the community as a socio-economic driver for those in the vicinity of our operations.

“Make no mistake, local communities do not want zama zamas in their midst,” he adds.

“They have seen that they bring crime to their areas, so they want them out as much as we do.”



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I find it interesting that the ways of old – technologies, opportunities and safety of our early mining days is so criticised as unfair and abusive whilst today the Zuma Zuma’s happily accept the abuse and danger the new “mining bosses” meter out!

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