South Africa's illegal gold rush

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Media caption,

Andrew Harding reports: ''This is a huge industry, incredibly dangerous''

It was a small hole beneath a larger slab of concrete beside a busy road on the outskirts of the South African city of Johannesburg.

We had come to the neighbourhood, close to the World Cup FNB stadium, after hearing that several illegal miners - who routinely burrow in their thousands into the maze of old, disused gold mines beneath the city - had been killed in yet another rock fall deep underground.

Minutes after we arrived, the first dusty face appeared at the tunnel entrance.

A dozen miners proceeded to squeeze out of the hole - not a mineshaft but a culvert beneath a road, which somehow provided access to the mine.

Then they brought out the body.

The men had carried Thabang Konka, a 28-year-old from Lesotho, for three hours from the spot where the roof of a tunnel had collapsed on top of him, crushing his head.

"Of course it's dangerous," said one of the miners, a Mozambican called Domingo.

"But we need the money. We can earn maybe 250 rand ($25, £16) a day or more."

Another man said he knew seven colleagues who had died underground in the past eight months.

"I'm scared. But I tell myself you could die crossing the road," he said.

The miners gathered around Mr Konka's body, which they had placed carefully under a nearby tree.

They cut away the straw matting they had wrapped tightly round him, and then broke into an impromptu dance.

They stamped their booted feet rhythmically against the dusty earth and began to sing in deep, guttural voices.

'It's stealing'

"Now we must close up the hole," said Gordon Billing, a South African police officer who arrived at the scene moments afterwards with a team that quickly moved in to rope off the area and remove the body.

"It's a nightmare," said Mr Billing.

"We close one and another pops up, like moles. There are thousands of people working down there.

Image caption,
Gold made Johannesburg the prosperous city it is today

"It's stealing - the gold belongs to the state not to them."

Indian and Chinese middlemen are thought to play a key role in buying the gold, which is laboriously sifted from each bag of sand hauled up to the surface.

Critics accuse the police of turning a blind eye, or even of being actively involved in the trade, and blame the big mining companies too for failing to take the necessary measures to seal off the old tunnels.

Eventually Mr Konka's body was covered with a sheet, and taken away to a state mortuary.

The miners, standing beside a cluster of makeshift wooden shacks, watched the police from a distance, waiting for them to leave before heading back underground.

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