By Raymond Jaravaza
The moment he stuck his head out of the exit point of a disused mine where he had been working for slightly over two days — deep in a shaft, Petros Zhande found himself facing the barrel of a gun.
Caught between two choices; dashing back into the about 300-metre mine shaft or surrendering himself to the person on the other end of the gun, Zhande settled for the latter. It’s a decision he would later regret but one he has to live with for the rest of his life.
The year was 2017 and although he can’t remember the exact date, Zhande vividly remembers that it was on a cold June afternoon and he and six colleagues had just been rounded up by South African police.
Their crime was partaking in illegal gold mining in a disused mine in Boksburg, a suburb east of Johannesburg, the South African economic hub.
Locally illegal gold miners are known as omakorokoza but across the Limpopo they are referred to as Zama Zamas and South African police periodically carry out raids flushing out offenders searching for the precious yellow metal, which fetches a fortune on the black market.
The name Zama Zama is a Zulu term meaning “those who try to get something from nothing.”
Zhande, a 37-year-old father of two, who hails from Masvingo but relocated to Bulawayo over 10 years ago, had been involved in illegal gold mining in Johannesburg for two years prior to that fateful day when he found himself facing the end of a gun.
“To be honest when I moved to Johannesburg in late 2014, I was employed as a security guard for less than five months before I joined the Zama Zamas because the money is good compared to waiting for month end to be paid less than R3 000.
“I was introduced to illegal gold mining by a friend that I grew up with in Masvingo. He’d been a Zama Zama for a while and knew the disused mines to target and buyers that offered the best rates for gold,” Zhande told Saturday Leisure in an interview at his Pumula East home.
He has been back in the country for a while and is taking a short hiatus before deciding on whether to go back to South Africa or not.
The illegal gold mine operation is South Africa is a lucrative business and where there is money there is bound to be trouble and skirmishes over the precious yellow metal, according to Zhande.
“Jobs in South Africa are now hard to get so everyone, including the locals, are looking for anything that can give them money. Being a Zama Zama used to be a job for us foreigners but in recent years even the South Africans have been joining the trade so now there is so much competition in the mines,” he says.
A dangerous occupation!
Zhande recounts how at one time he came close to losing his life.
“Up to this day I still don’t know how I survived when a rock I was stepping on suddenly collapsed. However, I was holding onto a rope the whole time we were going down the shaft I managed to hold tightly onto it before jumping on another stable rock that was nearby,” he recounts.
On that fateful day that he was arrested by police for illegal gold mining, Zhande and his colleagues were bundled into a van and taken to the nearest police station.
That country’s laws criminalise illegal mining and the Zama Zamas found themselves facing a magistrate the following day.
“It only dawned on us that we were in serious trouble when were taken to court the following day after the arrest and denied bail because we were all foreigners and the prosecutor opposed bail saying we were flight risks.
“Two of us were Zimbabweans and the other guys Mozambicans and all of us were in South Africa illegally and that made our case even more complicated. The lawyer that was provided by the state made it clear that we had no chance of getting bail but that he would plead for leniency at trial,” he said.
After three months in remand prison and four court appearances the father of two and his colleagues were each slapped with a two-year sentence, six months suspended on condition that they do not repeat the offence in five years. He served his time at Boksburg Correctional Services.
“We spent slightly over a year before being released. A year in prison is a long time because as a bread winner you always think about your family and wonder how they are surviving but at the end of the day I was involved in illegal stuff and I got punished for it,” he adds.
He is pondering on whether to go back to the neighbouring country but the recent xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals are making the decision a hard one to make.
In June this year, a South Africa publication, The Times, reported that a Zimbabwean national Frank Joe Moyo, who was allegedly linked to illegal gold mining, was murdered by an unknown assailant in Limpopo.
It’s reported that the 41-year-old Moyo was coming from the Carnival City in Gauteng and arrived at a house in Zanghoma village to pay his ‘illegal mining employee’ and while he was outside the house talking to some of the employees, an unknown assailant entered the yard, shot him and fled on foot with his cellphone and an undisclosed amount of money.
He was certified dead at the scene.
In 2017 South African police reported that over 1 600 illegal gold miners were arrested in that country with deaths in the shafts due to explosions and accidents being recorded as well. The Chronicle