By Sheree Bega
The illegal miners risk their lives daily to feed their families, writes Sheree Bega.
Zephania Chauke rolls the nugget, inspecting it carefully. It’s tiny, barely bigger than a matchstick head, but it glints like a promise in his dusty hands. Later, he’ll mix it with mercury to reveal the precious gold it contains.
Chauke, who works as an informal gold miner in Roodepoort, wraps it in a piece of cloth and puts it away. Then he gets back to work, swilling the diggings hauled in plastic buckets from an old mine dam here in Durban Deep, in his hunt for gold.
He says he pockets little more than R70 a day for his efforts, of which he saves half.
“I keep the money to send to my son in Maputo for school. He is 6. I want him to have a better life and not to have to do what I have to do.”
With his tired, haunted eyes and chewed nails, Chauke looks much older than his 25 years. His clothes and shoes are tattered, his body covered with a yellow layer of dust, like the large group of men, mostly from Mozambique, who toil here alongside him from 6am every day.
A young gold buyer watches the group. They sell their meagre finds to him.
“If I don’t make money, they don’t make money,” the buyer says. “They know that. They are not being exploited because no one is forcing them.
“They can’t find jobs. Like me. This world of gold is dangerous,” he adds, scanning the area for threats. “I have to keep moving. I don’t even know who the people are at the top of this pyramid of gold smuggling. To them, I’m a nobody.”
Last month, Chauke was among the first to discover the body of a man, floating face-down in the dam. The man had been stabbed in the head. He has not been identified.
“It’s not good for someone to be killed like that,” Chauke shrugs. “But that is life here in Durban Deep. There’s too much danger.”
As in other parts of South Africa, illicit mining has exploded across the mining belt of Durban Deep.
Rosalind Morris, a professor of anthropology at the University of Columbia in New York, says those involved - most often migrants from Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and people from the impoverished Eastern Cape - are lured by the “fantasy” of gold and wealth.