While unaware local and international tourists frolic and capture the beauty of nature on their cameras at Bourke’s Luck Potholes in Mpumalanga’s Blyde River Canyon, the danger of illegal miners is just around the corner.
This week, TimesLIVE noted an entire illegal mining operation hidden about 100 meters from tourist attractions.
Visitors for several days were unperturbed by the possibility of coming into contact with “zama zamas” behind a koppie, who were going about their own business.
The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) is concerned and hiking trails for the public have been restricted.
MTPA Acting Executive Director Mduduzi Vilakazi said illegal miners have been a problem in the resort for years.
“We had to shorten our hiking route because they represent a danger as they are heavily armed. If these reserves are seized, we may not have [the] power to remove them. The safety of our tourists cannot be guaranteed while they are operating in our environment,” he said.
“They rob our tourists. It’s an old problem. We started to be affected during the lockdown when some tourists were robbed. We have hired the police to ensure that we carry out an operation to remove the zama zamas. The police are in the planning phase of what can be done.”
Tourists can no longer camp near the mine.
Vilakazi said they will engage the energy and mineral resources department on sustainable solutions.
“They [illegal miners] they seem to have come from somewhere, because now there are so many of them.” he told her, adding that they have been operating for about three to five years.
Police spokesman Brig Selvy Mohlala said: “We have arrested 34 illegal miners during our operation in the Sabie area. We found them in possession of tools used in illegal mining. Most of them are from Mozambique. All of them are undocumented.”
The arrests were made in August.
A short drive away, under the picturesque hills to the east of the potholes, is the old Bourke’s Luck mine, which was closed many years ago.
TimesLIVE gained access to staff quarters leading to the spectacular overlook. From above we saw men going in and out of the old well. Dressed in dirty clothes, they knelt down, loaded sand into sacks and buckets, and disappeared into the well.
The men are believed to live on the veld and in the villages around Graskop, the gold mining town established in the 1880s.
Mpumalanga Police Commissioner Lt. Gen. Semakaleng Daphney Manamela said the police are trying to crack down on illegal mining and are monitoring the situation.
Zama zamas came into the spotlight in July when eight women were gang-raped, allegedly by illegal miners, at an abandoned mine in Krugersdorp, Gauteng.
Since then, communities near the abandoned mines have shared horror stories of zama zamas supposedly bringing crime to their areas.
Police and communities have intensified their efforts to root out illegal operators. Dozens of them, mostly undocumented foreigners, have been arrested, some allegedly linked to the Krugersdorp gang rape.
TimesLIVE (TMG Digital)