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The Grim Reality of Illegal Mining in South Africa



For decades, the mining sector in South Africa has been dominated by Basotho nationals. The Marashea gangs, now known as Zama Zamas, emerged in South Africa to protect Basotho nationals in mines from attacks by other gangs and from mine owners using various tactics to prevent organised labour as reported by The East African.

However, this organised criminal undertaking soon developed international links and expanded into other forms of crime.

Over time, the Zama Zamas became fully embedded in mining communities and held locals to ransom under a reign of terror. This was brought to national attention following the gang-rape of eight young women in Krugersdorp last year. These violent gangs rob, rape, and terrorise communities near abandoned mines.

Despite repeated efforts by South African authorities to control the Zama Zamas, their activities persist. For example, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy published a draft artisanal and small-scale mining policy. However, mining experts quickly rejected it as “unrealistic and unworkable” and a “fantasy which would never happen.”

The policy aimed to create valuable open-cast areas where artisanal miners could use legally and profitably mine, with previously mined areas excluded to prevent environmental liabilities. Nevertheless, the Zama Zamas’ activities have persisted unchanged, and they continue to operate in their thousands, engaging in dangerous and unlawful activities that come at the expense of every South African, often risking their own lives in the process.


The grip of Marashea gangs/Zama Zamas in mining areas was not aided by the apartheid-era policies of the white minority authorities aimed at curbing their influence. The Alien Act of 1963 prevented Basotho nationals from working in industries other than agriculture and mining in South Africa. This legislation only intensified the presence of Basotho nationals in South African mines.

Professor Kynoch’s book “We are Fighting the World: A History of the Marashea Gangs in South Africa, 1947-1999” sheds light on how the apartheid state was marked by coercive force and administrative frailty. The authorities left township residents to fend for themselves as long as crime and violence were confined within ‘black’ areas and did not endanger neighbouring ‘white’ regions. Despite the end of apartheid almost 30 years ago, the situation has remained the same.

Prof Kynoch’s book, “We are Fighting the World: A History of the Marashea Gangs in South Africa, 1947-1999,” provides a comprehensive account of the Marashea gangs, including 79 oral testimonies that offer an intimate insight into the lives of these individuals. Beyond the sensationalised tales of Basotho exploits, inter-gang conflicts, and confrontations with law enforcement, these testimonies reveal the human face of the appalling and inhumane conditions that many Marashea faced then and their successors, the Zama Zamas, continue to face today. These stories also shed light on the extent of human degradation and colonial domination these individuals endured.

Initially viewed with suspicion by local communities who perceived them as “outsiders” taking away jobs from locals, the Marashea formed a support network that served as a defence association for vulnerable Basotho migrants. Their primary goals were to earn money (mainly through criminal activities) in a market that failed to provide livable wages and to offer job security to enlisted Basotho.

Although South Africa and neighbouring states continue to suffer from unemployment and desperation, it is evident that the Zama Zamas’ illegal mining and related criminal activities will persist. Prof Kynoch concludes that the Marasheas’ ability to prosper during the apartheid era and their involvement in political conflict directly contributed to the violent crime epidemic that presently plagues South Africa. The suffering endured by the Zama Zamas and the communities they terrorise underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive and effective strategy to address this long-standing issue.


Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq on Unsplash

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