18-year-old informal miner mourns his dead friend

It’s hard to go underground, but life must go on, says Tawanda

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Photo of headlamp
The headlamp his friend gave him lights 18-year-old Tawanda’s way underground. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro

Eighteen-year-old Tawanda’s* most precious possession is a head lamp which his fellow-miner More Ngondi gave him. Tawanda watched in horror as Ngondi was shot at a mine in Benoni, leaving him to face the deep dangerous mines without his friend.

Ngondi was shot by security guards on 3 March at a mine near Modderbee Prison.

Tawanda, who has been an informal miner since he was 16, says he and his fellow miners had faced death many times underground before that day. He had seen rockfalls and fires and his group had been robbed of their gold several times at gunpoint. But until Ngondi’s death none of them had been killed. He had seen human bones underground, telling himself that as long as he was still alive it was better to endure. The older miners had taught him to focus on his goal of finding gold.

Besides, his family back home in Zimbabwe was looking up to him.

Tawanda’s older brother worked as an informal miner in South Africa and would come home to Zimbabwe wearing trendy clothes, with lots of money. The family ate better food and had new clothing when he came. Tawanda looked up to his brother. He wanted to be like him. At 16 he too went to the mines in South Africa, crossing the Limpopo near Beitbridge since he had no passport. It was a smooth journey to Johannesburg, he says, and felt like a new beginning.

“l left school when l was 12 years old. My family had no money for me to continue with school,” he says.

In October 2017 he made R30,000 from gold he extracted from a mine in Benoni. He went home to Chimanimani a rich young man. His parents gave their blessing to his return to South Africa in January 2018.

His group of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans go down 200 metres or more, using ropes. If the shaft has been sealed they use shovels to open it up. They carry the gold dust or “phenduka soil” out of the mine in 12.5 kg mealie meal sacks.

Tawanda believes that he once saw the ghost of an informal miner while he was underground in the Benoni mines.

“I heard the sound of a hammer and chisel nearby. But when l followed the sound it was quiet and l saw no one.”

When he recounted this to his fellow miners they told him him “to mind his own business next time”. They said the ghosts of informal miners were nothing to be afraid of because the miners had died looking for the same thing that he was looking for: gold.

But though he returned to the mines less than a month after Ngondi’s death, Tawanda says life has not been the same. The two miners would usually work close to each other, helping each other overcome their fears. After getting paid for their gold they would go shopping together.

He and the other miners in his group have decided to avoid the mine near Modderbee Prison where the shooting occurred.

When he went underground for the first time after the death of Ngondi he kept looking around for his friend. He says he felt lonely and afraid and pounded his hammer and chisel even harder.

He stayed underground for four days but returned to his one-roomed apartment in Payneville, near Springs, with only R1,000.

He has been underground several times since then, making between R5,000 and R10,000 on each trip of four to five days.

Now he is considering exploring mines in Secunda, Mpumalanga with his older brother. He will stay for three months in Secunda with the others before coming back home. His landlord will let him pay rent for his room in Payneville for the three months he will be away.

“Many people come back with lots of money from Secunda. I want to make more money, life must go on.”

But the memory of his friend still haunts him. The only thing that comforts him is the head torch which his friend gave him. The torch is everything to him, it lights his way underground.

* He did not want to give his surname.

TOPICS:  Mining

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