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Bittersweet Gold Rush

Selay M. Kouassi/ Twenty Ten

Location: Welkom, South Africa

African football teams and miners feel the bitter sweet taste of gold rush.

Associated Features: Surviving for Gold (Audio feature) Associated feature: City of Gold(Text Article)

The 736 African football players who set up camp in South Africa chased the dream of lifting FIFA’s 18-carat solid-gold trophy on the evening of July 11, 2010.

Likewise attracted by the rare metal, a growing number of people from all over Africa have rushed to South Africa to work in the mining business. However, for players and miners alike, the road to South Africa 2010 was not paved with gold.

Although African players left the tournament in the early stages, illegal miners, who hail mainly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, have been lured into a long-lasting, no-rules competition.

Illegal mining, unlike the FIFA World Cup, is a competition with no limit on the number of participants; a competition that often claims the lives of its participants who are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty.

Elliot Nkunda (not his real name) is a 24 year-old illegal miner from Zimbabwe. His story is typical of many Zimbabweans and Mozambicans who have resorted to illegal mining at Harmony's President Steyn gold mine shaft number 1, a closed mine on the outskirts of Welkom, a town located in the Free State Region.

Five years ago, his quest for greener pastures urged him to flee the rampant poverty in Zimbabwe and settle in Welkom. He was determined to change the hands of fate; a determination that has been mirrored by the African footballers who took part in the World Cup.

‘Five illegal miners die at closed Free State mine’ was the sad headline posted on the official SABC website only three days after South Africa’s hard fought 1-1 tie with Mexico in their Group A opener.

The accident happened at Harmony's President Steyn gold mine. A mine collapse, an underground fire and explosions were part of the misfortunes of legal and illegal miners that day. Elliot is aware that a similar fate could befall him, but he’s not scared. He believes every human being is like a dead person with a suspended sentence.

“I will build fortune from gold whatever the cost may be […] my fate is not sealed yet,” he proudly asserts.

Elliot may be young and inexperienced like most of the six African representatives in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but he is committed to making a success out of his new, albeit criminal, venture.

With no education or qualifications, Elliot migrated to South Africa with the hope of using his biceps to eke out a living in a country with a very high unemployment rate. Certainly, the illegal mining business ring set up by some South Africans and Zimbabweans welcomed Elliot.

Welkom, the Golden City!

It is at G-Hostel, on the outskirts of Welkom, that Elliot laid his hat when he first set foot in South Africa.

The mine dumps and headgear that dominate the landscape around Welkom (160 km northeast of Bloemfontein) say a lot about the main activity of this city. Actually, Welkom boasts the largest production of gold in the Free State province.

Ask a passer-by to help you find your way in Welkom and a gold-plated, toothy grin is what you will get. Gold teeth are the fashion in Welkom.

‘Teeth don’t mean anything if they don’t have gold on them,” says Abraham Mudiwa, a teenager playing football with his mates on a grassless roadside pitch. “You’ve got to make them notice your teeth.”

The mining business in Welkom inspired local female singer, Yondo Sabela, aka ‘Nono’. She has written two songs about people’s interaction with gold.

“This is ‘Impilo,’” Nono says, pointing her forefinger at the back cover of her first CD. “It means life,” she adds. “Gold is part of life of people living here in Welkom, It’s in fashion, it’s in art; it is everywhere. We work for it, we die for it.”

The Welkom mines have been attracting a growing number of people from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique escaping political unrest and economic pressure. They have settled in G-Hostel.

The sophisticated architecture of Welkom contrasts with the cluster of rough concrete buildings that make up G-Hostel, the hub of Welkom’s illegal gold mining industry.

The garbage that piles up all around G-Hostel raises doubt about gold transformation in that place. You won’t see any outward sign of prosperity in the tin flats, or around the wrists and necks of the residents. Yet, the gold that people put on their teeth in the town all comes from here.

At G-Hostel, hours before South Africa’s second group game against Uruguay, there were hardly any signs of support for Bafana Bafana. No big screen set in the yard. No flag hung on the walls or on the many clothes lines stretched between the buildings.

Some children play beside a heap of rubbish within sight of their morose guardians whose faces bear the stigma of the smelting activity. Their windcheater polo and their caps can hardly hide the burn scars on their faces. Their physical appearance and even their silence say a lot about the condition of people who live there.

Some dark and dirty barrels stocked in a corner bear testimony to the smelting activity handled there. They use the barrels to melt the ore at high temperatures in order to extract the gold.

It’s true that most of G-Hostel residents are Zimbabweans, and that Zimbabwe is not competing for the FIFA golden trophy, but at least they could cheer their host nation! For most of these ‘Zama Zamas’ (illegal gold diggers) the obsession with getting rich from illegal mining is much stronger than enjoying the game.

“Most of these players have saved up money, they are just playing for fame and fun now,” says a Zama Zama who wants to remain anonymous. “The game means less to me; I am struggling to make a living.”

When asked to speak about the daily routine of a Zama Zama in G-Hostel, our anonymous interviewee slinks away quickly.

It is very challenging for an ‘outsider’ to gain insight into the life of a Zama Zama at G-Hostel. As a matter of fact, the Zama Zamas are very suspicious. They see any stranger as a spy or someone who has a connection to police.

Police often carry out raids at the G-Hostel to arrest its residents, making Zama Zamas wary of strangers and intruders. However, when they rise from poverty and become nouveau riche, they speak openly about their exploits to anyone who wants to listen to them, and it is hard to get them to stop talking when they are warmed by bottles of beer.

Afro Vibes is their favourite place to get together for a gossip.

Afro Vibes!

Afro Vibes is a cosy and charming bar with modern sofas and soft disco lighting. It attracts most of the kingpins who reign over the illegal mining business in Welkom. They come here to relax and watch football games.

Afro Vibes’ charges are relatively expensive in Welkom, however its gold-tooth-wearing clients pay with smiles and even offer tips.

Most of the people who patronize Afro Vibes have connections to G-Hostel, but are not the typical residents. Clients wearing brand new yellow-and-green windcheaters and tracksuits enter the bar as the game is about to start. The noise of the famous vuvuzela stifles the Afro Jazz soft sound and gives the bar a stadium-like atmosphere.

In the main hall, the four wide screens hung on the walls embellished with South African colours were set on a local sport channel, ready to broadcast the game. Supporters’ vivid hope of seeing the host nation progress to the elimination rounds was completely squashed after Uruguay’s 3-0 win.

This loss brought great despair to many and left South Africa hanging on a thin rope for eventual progress to the second round.

Down but still hopeful supporters began to hope on other African teams, chatting away about the performances of Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, and other African iconic strikers.

Although the six African representatives benefited from the home support, Elliot, on the contrary, was not in ‘friend territory’ in South Africa.

“I had no paper, I have to hide from the police, but I coped with this situation […] but xenophobia! How can one hide from xenophobia? It’s there and you can’t escape from it,” says Elliot.

The young adventurer had a hard time before being trained by a legal gold digger who taught him some tricks to extract the rare metal. When he realized that he knew a lot, he and some mates left G-Hostel for Harmony Gold President’s Steyn 1, an abandoned mine in the outskirts of Welkom.

On Road to the closed mine

The bumpy road leading to the abandoned mine is narrowed by the long grass that thrives on the orange soil of the South African veldt. This area is strangely empty of people, and the only sign of recent human activity or occupation is a ‘Protea Coin Group’ security car parked at the foot of the headgear.

This is where Elliot and his five mates live.

“We are here because of the gold […] we see this place as home, we sleep here, we cook here, we do everything here,” he says.

Gaining an illegal miner’s trust and speaking to him about his activity next to a closed mine is a task that requires both patience and boldness. Once Elliot was sure his interlocutors were not disguised policemen, he opened up.

“It is illegal to be here, and I can get shot by the police if I get caught around here,” he says. He is aware of the problems he faces if he is caught there, but he won’t quit until he finds the yellow metal.

Elliot and his mates don’t have money to bribe the security to let them go underground like many other Zama Zamas. Instead of the greater treasure to be found in the subterranean realm they try to make their way with the residual gold ore dust they collect around the processing plant.

“I collect the dust around the plant. I work it, I make a drain, I use pieces of carpet like a net and then throw the soil on top of that net and pour the water. The carpet is like a net, it traps the gold.”

Before he finished the explanation of the Zama Zama’s way of extracting gold, Elliot literally vanished into the high yellow grass. A few seconds later, a ‘Protea Security’ patrol car parked at the same place and the driver asked that we leave the area before being treated with disrespect.

How did Elliot guess that a security patrol car was coming? Only he knows the secret.

Reappearing from the grass, Elliot narrates his bitter experience: “One day, I got caught by police officers here and I had to give them money to be released. […] I had no choice”.

Likewise, the Uruguayan striker Luiz Suarez, who parried the goal-bound ball with both hands and aborted an entire continent’s dream of seeing its only surviving team reach the semi-final, Elliot’s dreams were shattered when he got caught by police officers.

Elliot almost made it. He was so close to his goal when he got caught by police on the site of the abandoned mine. He had saved up enough money to make his dream a reality - he wanted to buy cars and return to Zimbabwe to run a transport business and support his family.

In exchange for his life and liberty, Elliot gave them all the money he had gathered by selling gold for years. The gold rush left him with a bitter sweet taste in his mouth, but he is gearing up to restart, more confident and determined than ever.

Elliot’s boldness and commitment in working to make his dream a reality should at least inspire African football players who were thwarted on the road to winning the most coveted golden trophy at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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