South Africa's illegal gold miners forced to scavenge in abandoned shafts

Off the main road behind a car repair shop, Andile Jeremiah slipped down a hole in the ground into an abandoned 100-year-old mine that helped make South Africa rich.

For a poor man in a country with a slumping economy, it was time to look for whatever had been left behind.

South Africa was once the world’s biggest gold producer, with more than 75 per cent of all global reserves in 1970. Its wealth attracted immigrants from around the world, paid for the construction of roads and railways and made South Africa’s economy the largest on the continent.

Economic growth has stalled. The rand has fallen by 30 per cent against the dollar in the past two years. China’s once-voracious demand for minerals has crashed. The mines where so many became rich closed after reserves were depleted faster than expected. A generation of poor South Africans and migrants now break into them and scavenge illegally to survive.

“A second gold rush,” said Niël Pretorius, CEO of DRDGold, which closed Durban Deep in Roodepoort, outside Johannesburg, the mine Mr Jeremiah works in every day. Founded in 1896, it was one of the world’s most profitable mines, producing more than $20bn worth of gold before it closed in 2001. At one point it employed 18,000 people. Elton John wrote a song about it. Then its reserves dwindled. The remaining gold was so inaccessible that it was prohibitively expensive and dangerous to extract. The mine was closed, its shafts sealed with concrete.

Now to get inside Durban Deep means finding a tiny hole, usually created by an amateur’s dynamite blast. Even when the mine was a formal operation the descent was dangerous. But today the chances of death or injury are much higher. There is no maintenance, no safety equipment, no access to oxygen and no oversight from professional mining companies. In 2014, 21 illegal miners died in the mine on one day. Miners say at least one person perishes every week, although there are no official figures.

A third of the gold industry’s 180,000 employees have been fired in the past decade – and many returned to the mines on their own illegally.

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