The life of zama zama part two: Death in a condemned mineshaft, and the tears of the people who mourn their loved ones

Everson Luhanga

Those who have died on duty as zama zamas. The horror stories of death. Survivors and victims’ families

Ntando’s mother, Nolwazi Khuzwayo, said she had no idea that her 20-year-old son was an illegal miner.

“I only found out he was a zama zama when I was told he was dead,” she said.

“I refused to believe it until I saw his body being brought to the surface.”

Ntando was shot from behind by a rival gang inside one of the tunnels on 21 April. He died about 20 metres below ground in an abandoned mine shaft in Robertville near Florida, west of Johannesburg.

The Scrolla.Africa team travelled down the shaft with the family and friends who had volunteered to retrieve his body. 

Under the supervision of an official from the Johannesburg Emergency Management Services, they took about 45 minutes to bring the body to the surface.

According to Ntando’s friend, Thulani Moyo who was with him on the day, a battle broke out underground between the armed Zimbabweans and the Basotho gangs.

The zama zamas didn’t have a stake in the fight, they were just there to work.

“When we were running away from the armed men, Ntando was the last person in our group. The bullet hit him in his buttocks and he died,” said Thulani.

Danisa Mgutshini is a zama zama who, in 2019, survived being struck by three bullets. 

Danisa said that he was confronted by a man in the abandoned mines near Dobsonville in Soweto who demanded his gold dust and cash. 

“I refused to give the man my dust or any money. He shot at me with three bullets that went through my body,” he said.

After only two weeks in hospital, he was discharged. 

“I’m happy I didn’t die. I went back to the shaft as soon as I had healed,” he said.

Neo Zikalala works as a zama zama at Faraday in Johannesburg Central.

He said most of the zama zamas die from breathing toxic chemicals and not as casualties in the gang wars. 

“I have seen my friends dying apparently because of the chemicals we inhale when we work in the sand,” he said. 

“When I started working here I knew I could be affected and get sick from the chemicals. But sitting at home without work is not an option,” said Neo.