Text: Orrin Singh Video and Pictures: Xanderleigh Dookey Makhaza

A gold mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is transforming the lives of former zama zamas by employing them as artisanal miners or contractors.

Bosveld Gold Mine near Pongola is working with former illegal miners in an effort to strengthen the local economy in the area and avoid bloodshed.

A key milestone in their model of working with the zama zamas was having their ringleader, Mhlonipheni Mavuso, agree to come on board.

Having lost his father at just four-years-old, Mavuso, said that his family struggled to make ends meet.

Poverty forced Mavuso into a life of illegal mining at the age of 16. Just before he left the illegal mining industry a year ago, he was a force to be reckoned with, commanding 170 zama zamas.

He explained his life as a zama zama.

"I am not a violent person but as a zama zama, I would come across violent situations. For example, maybe we would be working and one of us would get shot by a security guard if we are cornered underground. The only way to get out is to fight. It is hard because we had to fight even though we did not understand what we were fighting for but we would fight. Sometimes people would get hurt and sometimes people would die. All because of the lack of jobs/job scarcity, it is just hard. Sometimes when you are sitting alone and thinking, you feel like an animal," said Mavuso.

Mavuso has for the past year been working as a sub-contractor to Bosveld Gold Mine in Northern KZN.

Mhlonipheni Mavuso and some of the employees at Bosveld Gold Mines.


Mhlonipheni Mavuso.

From being a revered and feared ringleader of 170 illegal miners, to now managing former zama zamas and making an honest living, 41-year-old Mhlonipheni Mavuso said walking away from illegal mining was the best thing he did.

Mhlonipheni Mavuso and one of the employees at Bosveld Gold Mines in Pongola.

Just over a year ago, Mavuso was recruited by Bosveld Gold Mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal - the very same mine he was at war with during his days as a zama zama.

Mavuso stands at the entrance of one of the shafts at Bosveld Gold Mines.

Mavuso said he was forced into a life of illegal mining due to poverty.

It's the same mine he previously terrorised as a zama zama ringleader.

The mine where Mavuso spent most of his life illegally mining for gold.
The entrance to Bosveld Gold Mines in Pongola, Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

He manages a team of about 30 former zama zamas.

Some of the men who work under Mavuso at Bosveld.

At 16 years old, he brought home some gold that he illegally mined and gave it to his mother, who sold it, allowing them to eat for that week.

Knowing he could provide for his family, Mavuso paved a way for himself through the rubble.

He said during his days as a zama zama, money used to come and go.

"You get momentary joy when you receive the money, but that money also gets finished quickly. It is really difficult being a zama zama.

"You can't plan properly. You cannot even bank your money because you will be questioned about your source of income. You end up misusing the money."

Mavuso is now employed as a subcontractor to Bosveld mine, making honest money - and a lot of it.

“Currently, with this project we are working on, myself and 30 other people sometimes get half a kilo [of gold] or more than that. That can give us R500,000 or more.

Mavuso says choosing to work hand in hand with the mine, he walks around freely, something he says means a lot to him. In the past, he would have to sneak in out of the premises.

One of the men at Bosveld. The mine has taken it upon themselves to provide employment opportunities to the hundreds of men and women who mine illegally in and around the mine. A move that has yielded extraordinary results for everyone involved.

Mhlonipheni Mavuso stands with some of the other employees at the mine. They all respect him very much, and refer to him as 'Bhuti Mhlonipheni', an isiZulu way of showing respect to an older brother.

The mines success means that more employment opportunities will become available to young people in Pongola, a small rural area in Northern KZN.

Mavuso said one of the things he appreciates about working with the mine is that he now has access to PPE, making his work much safer than before.

Bags of vamping outside the mine.

This is a tuck shop situated just outside the mine's entrance. It is the only shop providing snacks and refreshements to employees.

Mavuso walks into one of the mine shafts he used to illegally mine. Here he works with the 30 cooperatives employees by Bosveld.

Bags of vamping, historical tonnage, left underground. The co-ops that the mine could not place in other positions, are used to pull these out.