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As South Africa's Gold Mining Companies Decline In Production, Illegal Miners Thrive


South Africa has been a destination for miners who hope to strike it rich since gold was discovered in Johannesburg in the 1880s. A massive boom followed as South Africans and foreigners alike mined the world's richest gold deposit. That was then. Today, gold mining companies, the powerhouses of South Africa's economy, are in the midst of a 20-year decline in production. But as Peter Granitz reports, illegal miners are heading underground.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: The way James Moyo tells it, he's an expert at getting valuable things out of the ground.

JAMES MOYO: Gold, nickel, diamond, everything.

GRANITZ: Moyo says he mined it all in his native Zimbabwe, but he left for a better life in South Africa, migrating illegally in 2010. After piecing together odd jobs, he turned once again to the mines in 2014.

MOYO: Zimbabwe, there is no money. There is no job. At least if I'm coming here, I've got something.

GRANITZ: He says the price of gold fluctuates. This day, he thinks he can get 540 rands a gram. That's about $38 U.S. Moyo spends two nights a week underground, descending 100-year-old tunnels, squeezing through tiny holes and, working in the light of a headlamp, pick stones out of walls and pillars in the mine.

MOYO: And then we crush and then we crush and then we crush.

GRANITZ: And once above ground, he says it's easy to find black market buyers in the poor townships near the mines. Moyo is a zama zama, the local term for illegal miners. He and countless others mine shafts deemed no longer profitable to mining companies. It's inherently dangerous, and the South African government is trying unsuccessfully to crack down. Department of Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane says the government has arrested 800 zama zamas has this year.

MOSEBENZI ZWANE: Most of the people who are here involved in illegal mining activities are not even South African citizen. Some of them are even under the age of 12 years.

GRANITZ: Zwane had just suspended a rescue operation at the Langlaagte mine shaft in Johannesburg. This is where gold was found in 1886 and set off the whole bonanza. Companies stopped mining here more than 20 years ago, but at any given time, you can find zamas coming out of the shafts and ventilation holes up and down the Witwatersrand Basin, the rock formation that once held the world's healthiest gold deposits. It stretches for dozens of miles south, east and west of Joburg.

There's a police station across the street from the Langlaagte shaft. Daroh Tsikwe's brothers Sibangani died in a recent underground fire at Langlaagte. Sibangani lost his job as a gardener the previous month and turned to the mine to make ends meet. He died on his maiden trip underground. The Tsikwe brothers are also from Zimbabwe. Daroh, who stopped mining in 2013 when he found work as a truck driver, says desperation forces unemployed men underground.

DAROH TSIKWE: More than 2,000 people entering in this mine - more than 2,000.

GRANITZ: South Africa's Chamber of Mines, the trade association for the legal mining companies, says a surge in the gold price earlier this century led to an increase in illegal mining. Nash Lutchman, head of security for Sibanye, one of South Africa's largest gold producers, says multi-tier crime syndicates run illegal mining operations just like a business from the low-level zamas on up.

NASH LUTCHMAN: When we're talking the organized crime syndicates, we are actually talking a real proper crime boss, Al Capone-type of syndicate.

GRANITZ: He says the syndicates don't follow the environmental and safety precautions that his company has to. Back at Langlaagte, Moyo says he's preparing to go back in soon. He has a wife and three kids he needs to feed.

MOYO: It's dangerous, but there is no choice.

GRANITZ: The government of South Africa plans to seal up the Langlaagte shaft soon. That will do little to deter the zamas from entering elsewhere. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Granitz