For S. Africa's Gold Pirates, the Underground Life Holds Risks and Rewards

Police in Welkom, South Africa, arrested these gold pirates in October. The illegal miners can make 10 times the earnings of an average South African.
Police in Welkom, South Africa, arrested these gold pirates in October. The illegal miners can make 10 times the earnings of an average South African. (South African Police Service)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

WELKOM, South Africa -- Thousands of disgruntled mineworkers laid down their tools one Wednesday night in March 2005, and in the eight days they were on strike, one of the darkest secrets of South Africa's gold mining industry spilled into the light.

Thin, thirsty men lacking company ID cards began straggling out of the shafts, their eyes blinking from the sting of the sun. They were gold pirates, illegal miners who spend months at a time in conditions so unforgiving that, when one dies of exhaustion or poisonous mine gases, his body is simply left in the shaft with a note listing his name and next of kin.

And though the pirates are notoriously resourceful and violent -- they have been known to roll a grenade fashioned out of mine explosives at those who pursue them -- they are dependent on the help of legitimate miners, who for a cut of the profits smuggle food in and gold out, police officials say.

The strike cut that lifeline, driving 140 men to the surface and into the arms of waiting police.

Estimates vary sharply of the value of the gold that pirates steal each year, but in November the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria research group, calculated the number at $250 million a year. Police here in Welkom, in the heart of South Africa's gold fields region, put the figure even higher.

"They say crime don't pay," said Capt. Neels van der Merwe, the beefy, shaggy-haired head of South Africa's largest precious-metals police task force. "But this crime pays."

More than 1,300 arrests have been made related to gold piracy in the past two years, police officials say. Yet at least several hundred more of the miners remain at large, willing to endure inhuman conditions for earnings 10 times higher than what an average South African earns from legitimate work.

The money is hard to beat in a country where one out of four workers cannot find a job.

The pirates pay bribes of about $200 to security guards and other legitimate employees to go down shafts, then stay underground for months at a time. Without safety equipment, they are vulnerable to lethal -- and potentially explosive -- mine gases. Smoking cigarettes is common, in flagrant violation of mine safety rules.

"They can blow up the whole mine and kill a lot of people," said Michael J. Fryer, an assistant police commissioner who oversees the national police effort against gold piracy, speaking from his office in Pretoria. "I think it's a matter of time before we're going to have something happen down there."

At least as dangerous is mercury, a toxic, silvery liquid that many pirates use to process the gold down to a form that's easily smuggled to the surface.

While still underground, many of the pirates put their mined rocks into a penduka -- a makeshift, hand-cranked tumbler made of a used metal gas tank -- along with iron balls that crush the material to a sand-like consistency.

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