Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

South African Miners Blocked From Leaving Illegal Mine


In South Africa this morning, an unknown number of illegal miners are still underground after a rival gang blocked their way out of an abandoned gold mine with boulders and a concrete slab. They were discovered trapped down there on Saturday after police patrolling the area heard their cries for help. Eleven were freed yesterday when the debris was removed, and a handful more emerged this morning. But others are staying in the mine.

We reached reporter David Smith of The Guardian in Johannesburg.

Good morning.

DAVID SMITH: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why are they not coming out? Now there is a way out?

SMITH: Quite simply because they fear arrest. They know if they emerge, the police are waiting and they'll be taken off to custody.

MONTAGNE: Take us back to exactly what happened, though, a few days ago. They were in there mining illegal - and what is this about a rival gang that is supposed to have trapped them?

SMITH: Yeah, the group of illegal miners appear to have gone down into this abandoned shaft, which is out in the middle of a field, quite a remote area, really. And according to people at the scene, the most likely explanation is that they actually ran across a rival gang of illegal miners who robbed them of whatever gold they had found and then imprisoned them inside this mine by covering the exit with a large concrete slab and some boulders.

It sounds extraordinarily, but in the world of illegal mining in South Africa, which has been described, really, as the second gold rush in Johannesburg and apparently it's not uncommon and there are frequently reports of underground battles between rival gangs, scrapping over what's left of the gold down there.

MONTAGNE: Because people are just that desperate.

SMITH: That's right. I think many of these illegal miners actually come from other parts of Africa, very impoverished countries, Mozambique, perhaps Zimbabwe. They cannot get jobs in a South African economy where the official unemployment is already 25 percent and the unofficial one is possibly more like 33, 35 percent. So people find all sorts of ways to improvise to try and earn some kind of money.

And South Africa has the deepest mines in the world. It's got huge mineral resources. Some of these mines are very old. The companies that ran them have pulled out and they're seen as sort of rich pickings. You know, in a remote area you're unlikely to be disturbed by the police. If you work hard enough - and it's extremely hard and dangerous work, you might find some gold left that the company failed to get.

But yeah, it's a very desperate thing to do. Many people die doing this.

MONTAGNE: Well, how - speaking of that, I mean how long can those miners, however many there might be, stay underground, even if they're just trying to avoid, you know, being arrested when they come out?

SMITH: I think they obviously only really go for as long as they have any kind of food and water down there. And what I've seen, they don't have much.

MONTAGNE: And just quickly, were they - they were arrested and the ones that came out have been arrested?

SMITH: Yes. The 11 who emerged on Sunday, came to the surface. Quite a surprise for them, I think, for what had been a very secretive activity, suddenly they were confronted by huge rescue equipment, international TV news crews, and worst of all, the police. And they were given a brief medical inspection and all in fairly healthy condition, and then they were promptly put in the police van and driven away and spent the night in police cells.

Their moment of freedom was brief and then they were arrested.

MONTAGNE: That's David Smith, a reporter with the Guardian newspaper on the line with us from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.