It is South Africa´s richest unguarded gold ore mine, they say. Daring illegal miners – overwhelmingly migrants – swing 20 kilometer down a vertical tunnel – hugging a steel rope to the bottom of this mine. The less brave chose to be tied inside a fiber sack and thrown down the same tunnel. Only two-thirds arrive alive. Dozens are shredded to pieces when they sweat, loosen their fingers from the rope and vanish into shafts filled with acidic water. Survivors tell of ghastly sights of blood-laced human hair, drying on the tunnel´s spikes. After 12 months under the grim earth – in the middle of South Africa richest gold ore belt – many climb out with millions and astonishing riches.
Officially, this is an abandoned shaft on a mine owned by Harmony Gold, the third largest gold mining company in South Africa, the 5th largest gold producer in the world. The site is on the outskirts of Welkom, a gold ore rich city in South Africa´s Free State province.
But the illegal diggers call the site “Millionaires Mine.”
International syndicates from neighboring Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique have laid siege to this redundant but lucrative part of the mine. They lure young immigrant boys who are young as 16, and propel them down the mine to extort and earn a fortune from them, survivors say. Deaths have become a daily menace from this scheme. On 19 May 42 illegal miners were fried to ashes when pressurized methane gas exploded into tunnels in blistering 90 seconds of mayhem. Four immigrant brothers from the same family were burnt up together.
Corpses are still being picked, says the police commissioner for Free State province Mr. Leboana Tsumane.
The climb down,
*Joel (24), *Pindai (20) from *Zimbabwe and Samere (17) from Mozambique are illegal miners out to try their luck – just a week after the chilling deaths. They wave and flicker Chinese-made lamps that are fastened to their miner’s helmets. I shiver.
“You are a journalist – you want to slip down and see Millionaires Mine?” Joel laughs and beats a light fist into my waist. “It´s risky – know this.”
We are squatting inside a metal hut in Thabong, the poorest township of Welkom City. It´s 4pm. At 7pm under cover of dusk we will be driven to the hole that serves as entrance to take a grip of the rope and swing down into “Millionaires Mine.”
*Goliath – a late forties man said to be from Zimbabwe – heads the largest illegal gold ore buying syndicate in Welkom City, Joel whispers. Goliath has paid for our entry down the hole.
“Goliath is fearsome. Say Master when he arrives. Last week he threw a police informer down the mine hole and cut the thin rope behind the spy,” claims Joel who says he lived under “Millionaires Mine” from February 2015 to December 2015.
At 5.30 pm Goliath arrives with hail of dust. A muscular man with a tattoo of Fidel Castro planted on his neck`s veins, he climbs out of a maroon Range Rover Evoque with two bodyguards, and a frail 50s Indian man. “Where is the reporter?” he demands.
I appear before him. He inspects my Canon D40 camera and twists his finger into my shoulder. “No pictures of me, no mention of my citizenship, no printing of my boys names working under Millionaires Mine. I pay for your entry down and climbing out.”
He whispers, “Many are dying if they disobey me.”
Goliath clips the butt of his pistol gun and commands one of his bodyguards who is a fortune teller. Promptly Joel, Pindai, Samere and I take turns to bath in a dish filled with dirty paraffin fuel. “A good luck ritual to avoid sharp rock falls,” says the bodyguard.
Goliath opens up – many herbalists in Welkom City are reaping profits – charging R1500 ($120) an hour to bath illegal diggers in paraffin rituals and “bless” the diggers before they slip into Millionaires Mine.
I am more astonished when Goliath reveals the frail Indian man present is a qualified doctor – a state hospital radiologist secretly hired by illegal mining cartels like Goliath to administer medicine pills, injections or heat rubs on illegal miners before they slip down into “Millionaires Mine.”
For R3000 (US$220) per miner, clandestine business is booming for doctors in Welkom city as wealthy cartels hire surgeons to treat miners before they slip down the tunnel into “Millionaires Mine.”
“This sterilized injection is for gonorrhea,” says the doctor loitering from Joel to Pindai to Samere. He ploughs his needles into each´s buttocks, “The pills are for Bilharzia, the juice for fever. Err...This is critical. Heat under the gold mine can reach 40 degrees Celsius. Untreated gonorrhea quickly fills the miners’ genitals.”
Goliath is satisfied with the medicals carried on his boys. “His medicines; the doctor steals them from Welkom´s public hospitals,” he says.
The Free State health ministry did not pick calls to answer questions on the allegations of medicines stolen and diverted to illegal miners in the province.
Goliath then stuffs R8000 (US$615) each into the hands of Joel, Samere and Pindai the illegal diggers.
“Yours I give you only R2000 ($US153),” he tells me. “You´re just a reporter staying under Millionaires Mine for one week. I´ve paid the R5000 ($US384) for you to climb out safely.”
Joel, Samere, Pindai and I are ready to be shuttled to the mine hole. Their names and signature are captured into Goliath´s wieldy “Debts Book.” Goliath has wired R12 000 (US$923) to each of their wives acroass the border in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. “So their wives can calm down while these husbands spent 12 months under the gold mine,” he says.
Joel, Samere, Pindai will blast and dig for gold ore under “Millionaires Mine”, send it up to Goliath and only climb out in March 2018. They will join 60 other miners already working underground for Goliath.
“The price of not sending back your gold to me is, well, a rock fall accident will strike you under the mine,” Goliath stresses, waving a pocket knife past their lips.
Joel, Pindai and Samere bow their lamps to Goliath and clap at once, “We – we won’t disobey Master.”
We file into a boxed trailer of Goliath´s Range Rover and blast off into charred farm roads for the 15 kilometer journey to the hole that serves as the swing down into Millionaires. “Squeeze and pull your faces to the caravan floor, police won’t see you,” say Goliath shutting us inside the almost airless caravan.
6:30 pm thrown down a mine,
After battling for breadth during a 17 minutes ride the car stops. A bodyguard fishes us from the caravan. We moan and gasp for oxygen again. Joel´s head is bleeding lightly. A sharp caravan wire pricked his flesh.
We are at the 9 meter-diameter the hole that serves as the illegal entrance to “Millionaires Mine.” The hole is dark, and protrudes on top of an ante-hill. Today the hole has three steel and fibre ropes fastened, mounted down into the earth via the 20 km mine tunnel. The first rope is oiled and looks slippery.
“Last month the white farm owners poured greasy oil down the rope soon after two miners climbed down,” curses Goliath. “Letters from underground say the boys never arrived. They slipped all the way to the acid water pool.”
I mince my fingernails in fright.
Food goes first,
First Goliath, Samere and Joel unite efforts to lift a 30 kilogram sack full of tinned beef, canned beans, hard bread and Coca Cola cans. The sack is plastered with hand-written letters that bear “Joel, Samere, and Pindai food. Don’t touch!!!”
The sack is lowered down the grease rope. The tumbles down the hole into the dark unknown. “Don’t fear,” Goliath assures me, “It is your start-up food. It fell the first 8 kilometers into the mine. You´ll meet your food ahead. Porters will give it to you. No one down there steals it. The penalty is harsh.”
Joel who has previous experience of living under “Millionaires Mine” reveals to me – “down there our intestines become razor thin. We can only eat smooth beef from tins.”
I hesitate to fall down into the mine. Joel steadies our nerves. “I´ll hold and swing down the pole without grease. You all come after me – remain four meters apart,” he says and grips the pole´s fibre. “We wail upon the rope, fall slowly, never your feet up in air.”
The hole is excruciating. I am squeezed third between Samere and Pindai at last. My legs are wrapped around the steel pole to support my hands grip. “Swing down slow, lowly,” instructs Joel in hushed tone. “Don’t body-slam me!”
If Pindai above us loses his grip, he will tumble down the rope and violently throw us with him (the three below) into the dark abyss of acid water pools below.
Just 100 metres down the pole, my hands ooze sweat. Thighs that hug the pole get warm from the bruises of wrapping feet around the steel pole. In the dark above us the faint sound of Goliath Range Rover driving off filters. “There is no turning back way up. Hug the pole or you slip down into sharp cliffs. We´ll rest soon at Level 10.”
Level 10, Underground,
After 2 hours of slipping slowly down a fibre and steel rope we divert to in an ancient rock cave blasted by the mine. Its walls are inscribed. “Level 10 Rock Drill 3/June/ 1994.”
This is Level 10, a resting cave for illegal miners slipping down the rope. Joel adjusts the gaze of his helmet´s lamp and loosens his kneepads and protective gloves. It shines brightly over a rock where there is a pungent smell and pieces of scruffy jeans. “It´s human hair. I think he fell one month ago.”
Samere twists and dims the light on Joe´s lamp. The brown hair laced with dry spot of blood and torn jeans have unsettled him. Pindai wants to spit saliva to disabuse himself of the smell. Joel numbs his lips, “The spirit of the dead will haunt our families if we spit on the hair.”
Joel the leader extinguishes his helmet lamp for good and sighs in the dark. Pindai farts loudly – the friction and heat hugging the rope has split skin between his right thumb and fingers.
In the dark, Joel mesmerizes us in a low voice. His wife gave birth to a daughter. He named her Primrose. “She´s a rose. If I die I know Master Goliath will put her through school.”
He says he loves Master Goliath. He lights his cellphone to show pictures of an R260 000 ($US20 000) Scania lorry he bought after he worked for Master Goliath under “Millionaires Mine” in 2015.
“What if this time we die of methane gas and won’t come out?” asks Pindai.
“Shit,” Joel insults him and slides in front to get us swinging down the rope again until we reach the base of the mine. “Fall slow behind me, again.”
Only Joel´s helmet lamp flickers on. Ours are switched off. Our lives depend solely on the batteries.
If ever all our batteries die, “we´ll die peacefully on the rope or tunnels,” repeats Joel.
Arrival: “Millionaires Mine” base,
After slipping 20 kilometre rope for 10 hours, resting at Level 10 and Level 17, crawling a further 4 square kilometer rock tunnel, we reach our destination. The base of Millionaires Mine.
The “base” as digger call it, is a crazy scene. Shrills of “Penduka” gold crushing tins that weight 50 kg each fill the airless underworld. “Pendukas” are giant tins that are stuffed with crushed gold stone, 5 liters of mercury acid and salt. Human porters wearing underwear only are contracted to turn the tin on an axle for two hours till the mercury traps all gold ore from the crushed stones.
“The porters are really slaves. They receive R4500 ($300) a day to turn the Phenduka tins,” reveals Joel. “If an axle loosens, the tin crushes the porter to death.”
Around us I stopped counting at 300 when diggers began to troop back from improvised rock blasts. “There 1200 illegal miners under here; all nationalities are represented, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi,” remarks one “Chief Baya.”
He introduces himself. “Chief Baya,” 56 is the de-facto tribal elder who settles gold ore disputes and approves executions 20km under “Millionaires Mine.” An immigrant from Mozambique, he says he has lived under the mine since November 2014.
He wears no clothes. He is in his underwear only. His skin is light like worn-off cotton. 60% of all illegal miners under “Millionaires Mine” wear mini-briefs only all day. The air is stuffed and hot. Temperatures soar to 40 degrees Celsius in bad months. Like everyone under the mine, daily, he spends his off-hours sleeping his back in a stream of water to rub off the heat.
“The last time I took a bath was in January 2017,” Chief Baya says. “My skin can peel off horribly if I bath with soap.”
*Chief Baya knows our leader Joel. “I know your Master Goliath too, I work for him. How is he up there? Your food arrived.”
He smiles and points us to porters who crawled for 8 kilometre to Level 17 to carry our sack of food that was thrown ahead of us.
Joel, Samere and Pindai pay R2000 ($US 153) each to the porters who went ahead of us to meet our food sack. The porters jobs is the riskiest. They can spent 8 months under the mine crawling 70 km in tunnels a week to meet sacks of food thrown down. “They sometimes wander and are arrested or they walk into undiffused rock explosions and their flesh is blsted into pieces,” Joel says.
In instant hunger we munch the tins of beef first. “No one lights a fire to cook for a year,” “Chief Baya” tells me. “Fires spark methane gas explosions under the mine. If caught cooking, crowds seize your gold, tie your hands behind the back and walk you for the last time into an acid pool shaft.”
Gold cartels like Goliath who operate in Welkom City are sneaking dozens of sex workers down into “Millionaires Mine” Chief Baya tells me.
He reveals, “Prostitutes don’t swing down the fatal rope. The likes of Master Goliath pay R10 000 (US$769) bribes to mine supervisors to smuggle down batches of six fresh prostitutes weekly. The girls travel in electric mine cages that ferry legitimate workers.”
Harmony Gold Mine executives ignored questions on these allegations and blocked this reporter out of their premises but a mine guard who spoke in anonymity says he pockets R5200 ($US$400 monthly) for sneaking ladies down into the mine.
After a 30 minutes’ walk around sharp rock falls that can give in any minute we meet Rosa. Rosa, 29, is a sex worker who has lived underground for the last three months. She says she is from Harare, Zimbabwe, 2000 km away from South Africa. She is a part of a syndicate of twelve girls. “Master Goliath bribed mine guards for us girls to be thrown down here. I service his gold diggers.”
She points to a blanket laid on a flat rock which is her “bed” and reveals, “Sex without a condom is R3000 (US$230) per twenty minutes. With condom R2100 (US$161). Business is brisk. In just three weeks I make enough money to buy a Toyota Corrolla sedan and build a house when I climb out of the mine.”
Janet Gwole, the Human Rights coordinator for the South Africa Sex Workers Alliance Forum, says the lure of underground sites like “Millionaires Mine” is causing fatalities among sex workers too. “Such girls make attractive cash fast but fall to vices like brutal rape or rock blasts under mines. We are horrified by these developments.”
We wonder into “G-Section.” It is a site of numerous rock falls and the spot where methane gas leakages burnt 40 illegal digger to death two weeks ago, Chief Baya tells me. But many diggers jostle to lay dynamite explosives and loosen the rocks of G-Section further.
“We call it G-Section because it is the graves section. It is the area with the richest gold ore rock though. After a short prayer we bury all boys dying from punishments, heat, disease or rock blasts here. Their corpses face east in line with our beliefs.”
We file back into the central courtyard where hundreds of illegal miners rest for their evenings. Joel motions me to sit down next to Chief Baya and listen carefully.
“Chief Baya” examines a criminal case with four other “chiefs” all 40 years and older. A 31 year old man from Manica, Mozambique lies half-conscious in the middle of the crowd, bleeding from the nose after being pounded by fists.
His alleged crime? “He slept with his neighbor’s wife in Mozambique,” says Chief Baya. “The adulterer arrived down here not knowing the angry husband is also present under the mine. Crimes done up there on earth are punished with death here 20 km under Millionaires Mine.”
It is concluded the bleeding men cannot make it. Two teenage boys with gold rock hammers pull him to rest in the G-Section. “He´s dumped there, if he survives in the graves section, his lucky,” Joel whispers to me.
The gathering breaks up but evening gold trade resumes in the courtyard. There is frenetic betting. Some under-age boys who slipped down into the mine at fifteen in 2016 are now 16 and addicted to gambling their gold ore in exchange for beer, tobacco, or sex money. Legal mine workers are the heart of smuggling tobacco and the contraband down under, Samere says.
A gambling boy who lost a 200 gram vase of gold ore offers me a brand new iPad 4 for R3000 (US$220) to quench his thirst with a prostitute. He peruses the gadget, “See my Facebook photos. It works.”
Trade in movie-packed laptops and latest Samsung phones is vibrant under the mines, says Robert Thornton, an anthropologist who specializes in illegal mining at South Africa´s premier Wits University. Such trade has "had a very big impact" on the economies of mining towns above the earth.
Illegal miners say they walk four kilometers to bribe mine supervisors with 20 gram vases of gold. “Just to charge a Galaxy S7 for a day, ” says the gambling boy.
I turn him down and a porter brings me bread. A loaf of bread costs a whopping either R500 (US$38) or a vase filled with 20 grams of gold ore; a 330 milliliter can of Black Label beer R500 too.
One gambling boy abandons his vase with 60 grams of gold ore to urinate. “No one steals under here. The price of the theft is to have your fingers pounded by hammer on flat rock until they see white bone,” Joel tells me.
Joel gets down to work to earn some quick money. Ten boys from Mozambique gather around him. They can neither read nor write. For one vase of 30 grams gold ore or R500 he writes letters for them on paper and ties their small plastic stubs filled with 100 grams of pure gold ore each.
One of his customers, 19 year old Woyo from Mozambique, shouts words as Joel scribbles on a paper. “My dear wife buy furniture R20 000, 12 cows R50 000, Master Goliath will send you cash 67 000. I will come out of mine Christmas 2017….be nice wife,” he stresses.
Writing letters on behalf of the illiterate is a lucrative task for educated illegal miners like Joel. The letter take one month to climb out of the mine. Bundled together with stubs of gold ore the letters are carried out by legitimate mine workers who are paid bribes of R5000 ($US230) per trip.
“It is a secretive, slow but effectively coded postal system. The couriers bring the letters and gold to Master Goliath up there on the surface. Master Goliath keeps accounts record of all gold he receives and pays our wives. Master Goliath takes his 50% cut from every gold conveyed to him and sends down a hand written letter same way,” says Joel.
One week later: the climb up,
There is only one way to climb out of “Millionaires Mine” – the legal route and face arrest.
“We pay porters R 3000 per trip to carry and dump our injured at the mine´s shafts offices and run back into the tunnels. Mine managers have no option but to pick our injured, place them in an electric cage going up to the earth – to clinic.”
When illegal miners want to climb out of the mine “Master Goliath” pays again, Chief Baya explains. “For R42 000 one climbs out of the mine in the electric cage, deliberately gets arrested. Influential police bosses in Welkom City are paid nicely to stall the court process until the illegal miner flees acroass the border back to Zimbabwe.”
The police commissioner for Free State province, Mr. Leboana Tsumane denies that his officers are involved in schemes but says: “Trust me, the police force works at all time to remove corrupt elements from its ranks.”
The legal costs, Chief Baya reveals, Master Goliath deducts from vases of gold ore send up to him and “he bills in his accounts books.”
Seven days have pass while I loiter under Millionaires Mine. Master Goliath facilitated my smooth return. I refit my rock-fall helmet and secure my camera. I vanish and climb out.
(*Asterik means the main figures quoted in this story have chosen to hide their names or chose nicknames and pseudo names to obtain safety from exposing their identity)
(Picture caption: The picture shows illegal “Phenduka” gold ore crushing tin machines hidden in a shaft-room above “Millionaires Mine” in Welkom City)
(Picture credit: Ray Mwareya)
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