Legalising the Zama-zama

 In South Africa

Some people who had been retrenched or those who are currently employed by the mines are involved in what others called “illegal mining” or zama- zama (Zulu for “those who try their luck”). The retrenched mine workers with few, if any, non-mining skills and often not enough money in their retrenchment packages return to the 6000 abandoned mines. While those who are still in the employ of the mines, because of low wages, moonlight as zama- zama, either while at work or during their leave periods.

In other words, zama-zama does not only operate in abandoned mines but also operate in active minesn The zama -zamas descend into the ageing shafts and up to 4 kilometers underground and staying there for several days in the hopes of finding a valuable piece of gold or precious stones. The dangers they face include rock falls, methane poisoning, underground fires and many more.

Capitalist ethos

The zama-zamas often are not operating independently (or self – employed). Instead, most of them are precarious employed by crime syndicates. These syndicates, just like employers, provide zama-zamas with the necessary equipments including security. Sipho Mahabane who is part of zama-zama was quoted in the mail& guardian “The kingpins are our buyers. We work hard for them and they reward us. We know that they make more from the gold but we don’t care, so long they give us something. The zama-zamas are in essence engaged in precarious work to benefit the criminal bosses at the top, just like other workers under capitalism.

Zama-zamas are operating in line with the capitalist ethos. Like capitalist organization, in most part zama-zamas have become an organized activity with hierarchical structures. The people who go underground have foremen they report to and get instructions from. And they deliver whatever they have dug underground to the bosses, just like in the conventional mining. Because they are serving organized criminal bosses, the zama-zamas who go underground do not see the real value of their labor.

However, these criminal bosses who are in control of these zama-zamas market and sell whatever is dug out from underground to legal buyers who are in possession of licenses issued in terms of the Precious Minerals Act. It is clear that the final destination of the minerals extracted by zama-zamas ends up in the supply pipeline of legitimate international buyers. In essence the Zama-Zamas working in the belly of the earth are like outsourced labor of the legitimate mining houses. According to South African Human Right Commission, some companies use ‘warehousing’ as a way to entice zama zamas into their closed sites to mine for product that is no longer financially viable to mine and then collude with zama zamas to sell that product through legal channels, thereby evading tax. There is a very thin line between legal and illegal when it comes to moving, processing and selling illegally mined gold.


It is obvious that criminalization of the zama-zamas (those who go underground), where there are millions of unemployed people desperately looking for jobs is not the solution. The criminalization of the activity is futile and has the unintended consequence of strengthening the hand of syndicates at the expense of exploited zama-zamas-those who go underground. On the contrary, the decriminalization will isolate and expose the criminal elements that send these desperate people underground without adequate safety precautions. Recognizing ‘illegal’ mining and other informal mineral extraction methods as crucial livelihood strategies for the poorest in the country, will aid the protection of zama-zama who are exploited by the syndicates .The government must allow the zama-zama to establish cooperatives or self –employment schemes.

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