The Joburg township where outlaws make the rules

Illegal gold mining is what sustains Lindelane, to the east of Joburg.

It’s dangerous, often fatal, but illegal underground gold mining is pretty much all that sustains the economy of Lindelane, a sprawling favela of tin shacks and shebeens near Benoni, to the east of Johannesburg. Try as they might, the police are powerless to combat a local industry that government, mining houses, trade unions and other respectable voices want stamped out.

That’s just not going to happen in Lindelane, or neighbouring Kingsway, where each morning thousands of young men squeeze through tiny openings into abandoned underground mines, armed with chisels, hammers and battery-powered torches. Underneath Johannesburg, from Springs in the east to Roodepoort in the west, a network of disused mine tunnels running several thousand kilometres in length stands as a monument to the city’s former glory years as the gold centre of the world. The golden years are gone, leaving a rabbit warren of subterranean passages now occupied by these outlaws and the gangs to which they owe fealty: the Zulus, the Mozambicans, the Zimbabweans, the Sothos.

The police occasionally confiscate a sack of rock and some equipment, but in truth the war on illegal miners has been lost. These men make their own rules. A police detective tells of one gang holding another hostage underground and making off with their haul of ore. Not once, but frequently.

The mining houses abandoned these operations and blocked off disused shafts when they were no longer profitable. But for the artisanal miners of Lindelane, these discarded tunnels are rivulets of cash. Economic anarchy reigns here: there are no government busy-bodies asking for mining licences, no trade unions bitching about long hours and tea breaks, no safety officer issuing hard hats to those brave and desperate enough to burrow below the surface. Once you enter this underworld, you know the risks.

The Joburg township where outlaws make the rules

A skull and bones emblem warns illegal miners of danger at the old Modderfontein Nap shaft. (Image by: Ciaran Ryan.)

Most of the young men surface again at 6pm when the police change shifts. This little window of freedom allows them to dodge the law and make off with their daily haul of gold-bearing ore, heading straight for one of the scores of illegal refineries operating in the township, mostly in back yards. The rocks are crushed and washed through small hand-operated mills to liberate the gold from the rock. The ore is washed down a sluice, and gravity does the rest. Gold, being heavier than the surrounding crushed rock, settles on mats strategically placed on the sluice, while the lighter waste material is washed away.

On a good day, Thabo (not his real name) will end up with a gram of gold, netting himself about $22 from one of the many underground gold dealers that operate on the east rand. But most days, he squeezes just a tenth of a gram from the 15kgs or 20kgs of rock he chisels from the bowels of the old Modder B mine, almost directly underneath the Benoni prison. His average take for a day’s work is between $7.5 and $11. Some illegal miners earn substantially more.

The police do what they can to snuff out illegal mining, but they recognise it is a hopeless task. There are scores of openings to the abandoned underground mines of Johannesburg. Close one down, and the miners simply move to another.

“For these people, this is their only way to feed themselves,” says one police officer. “These are people who have never been to Sandton or the nicer suburbs of Johannesburg. These are the poorest of the poor.”

The Joburg township where outlaws make the rules

A tiny hole leads to underground tunnels in once abandoned mine. (Image by: Ciaran Ryan.)

Most South Africans would be hard pressed to find Lindelane on a map, but it has one of the highest crime rates in Johannesburg. Weekends are particularly brutal, with assault and murder the cause of most police call-outs. On a Friday, the shebeens (unlicensed and informal bars) are pumping and the miners are out for a good time. That’s when the trouble starts. Knives and guns are the arbiters of petty squabbles. For a few thousand rand you can hire a hitman to get someone knocked off. This is a corner of Joburg you hear about but never visit.

Last Friday a man identified as Tsiu Magasane from Lesotho was shot dead at Shaft 13 in Benoni Mine to the east of Johannesburg when a group of men in a vehicle purporting to be mine security approached a group of illegal miners and started firing indiscriminately. A murder case has been opened at Benoni Police Station. Police say the killers were probably from a rival gang.

Illegal miners are understandably reluctant to give their names or be photographed for fear they would be targeted by the police. Everyone knows each other here, and they’re suspicious of outsiders. It has to be that way to stay ahead of the law. One young miner says he had just emerged after a three day marathon underground with 10 grams of gold as his prize. One gram of gold is worth about $38 at current market prices (depending on the carat), but the miners will receive about $22 after the gold buyer takes his cut. Some miners stay weeks and even months underground before resurfacing. A township supply chain ensures they receive food, torch batteries and other basic necessities while underground.

Underground mines are dangerous and inhospitable places at the best of times. Mining houses spend hundreds of millions of dollars on underground cooling and water pumping systems, not to mention the reinforcement of mined-out cavities to stop them collapsing. None of this happens in illegal mines. These disused mines seethe toxic dust and gases, roof collapses are common, and life expectancy is low.

Lindelane is, literally, the garbage can of Joburg. It’s how people make a living here: recycling other people’s discards, whether gold, plastic or glass.

A police officer tells of one young miner who was a witness in a criminal case. Not yet in his thirties, he had a severe bronchial condition from inhaling toxic fumes and stale underground air. He was dead before he was due to appear in court.

In 2009, at least 82 illegal miners were reportedly killed from inhaling poisonous gases in Harmony mine in the Free State. The difference here is that Harmony is a functioning mine with all the infrastructure and safety protections required of a modern mining outfit, though the deaths occurred in an underground section that had been closed by management. Still, up to 3,000 illegal miners (“criminals”, according to Harmony management) somehow managed to infiltrate the mine with the help of Harmony employees, working an abandoned part of the mine.

Just a few days before this tragedy, another five dead bodies were hauled to the surface at Harmony. In 2007, another 25 bodies were recovered following a fire. In Lindelane, one detective responsible for policing illegal mining says it is not uncommon for miners to stumble across human skeletons underground. These nameless casualties of rockfalls or fires will remain forever buried beneath the soil of Modder B, without so much as a tombstone to commemorate their brief lives.

The Joburg township where outlaws make the rules

Illegal miner covers his face to avoid police detection. (Image by: Ciaran Ryan.)

Thabo’s crude gold refinery, like most in Lindelane, is well hidden from the police. At the front of his small shack, his wife recycles plastic and glass, for which she earns a few hundred rand a week.

Lindelane is, literally, the garbage can of Joburg. It’s how people make a living here: recycling other people’s discards, whether gold, plastic or glass. The spaza shops are run by Ethiopians and Pakistanis who lock up their containers at 6pm each night and retire for the night to the safety of the steel boxes they call home. There is no electricity here, only the occasional generator. For Lindelane residents, their ladder of aspiration reaches across the highway to Kingsway, where tiny brick houses and electricity power lines demark the boundary between the poor and the desperate. Just outside the outer perimeter of Kingsway, in the shadow of the east rand gold dumps, you can hear the hammering of artisanal miners crushing rock from the day’s underground harvest. Most of them have look-outs to warn them when police are approaching. I catch one group off guard – a white guy with a camera, what the hell? They settle down when they realise I am not the police. The rain starts belting down, and they continue working. The day is not over yet. There are groceries to buy and no-one wants to leave their gold unattended through the night.

These miners, like their cousins on the other side of the highway in Lindelane, wait for the police to turn away before making their descent to the bowels of Modder B. Some will return later that evening. Some will remain underground for days. To do this job you must be young and strong. It’s not for pussies. When they get too old for this work, they will stay above ground and run the refineries. Or deal in gold. Or something.

If you’re from Lindelane, you may have heard of Sandton, Fourways and the rich suburbs of Johannesburg. But they may as well be in China because you’ll likely never go there.

* A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in Groundup.
* You can read more of Ciaran Ryan's work here.