South Africa’s shrinking employment market drives professionals underground

Bongani Siziba

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s shrinking employment market has had a telling effect on a number of African migrants, who, in their lowest ebb, can take the most menial of jobs.

For their large numbers, Zimbabweans are among the most-affected. Some, including the highly qualified, have shelved their pursuit of better paying jobs in favour of unorthodox sources of income.

One of those is 25-year-old Tapiwa Madenhere, a teacher by profession who arrived in his country’s southern neighbor a decade ago. After vainly scrubbing around for jobs, the father of three has decided to settle on life as a Zama Zama – a name that literally means one who lives by trying and is locally attached to illegal gold miners.

Having arrived in South Africa in search of better life opportunities in 2009, he failed to get something decent enough to provide basics for his family back home. To him, the risks that accompany life underground – where life and limb are always at stake, are worth taking.

“Problems at home forced me to do this,” he says.

“My children need school fees, food and medical aid for me to take care of, so all that forced me to risk my life. Sometimes we go for weeks without getting anything, but we stay positive so that we can be able to feed our families.”

Madenhere is one of illegal miners at Langlaagte, west of Johannesburg where at least seven illegal miners – all from Zimbabwe, died after they were trapped in a derelict mine shaft in 2016.

Abandoned mine shafts have become the source of employment, albeit a risky one, for those who have given up on finding employment, with an estimated 70% believed to be African migrants. In most cases, these illegal miners risk their lives by going more than 5 kilometres underground and staying there for several days in the hope of finding the precious stone.

“I am not that much scared of dying anymore,” says Cephas Kunaka, also originally from Zimbabwe.

“No man gives up especially when you have a family looking up to you. I would rather die here that let my family die with hunger back home. This is what we have to face here, we have accepted it.”

As Zimbabwe continues to plunge beyond its worst economic crisis in years – skyrocketing inflation, a biting liquidity crunch and failing institutions among many, its citizens continue to flock to South Africa in search of greener pastures.

Although these illegal miners have to put food on the table, many factors of their trade have had an adverse impact on the environment and to the miners themselves, such as accidents, deaths and health problems.

The movement of rocks in surface mining impacts the land negatively, destroying landscapes.

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