Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there is proof of something close: what South Africans call “ghost miners.” These men and women, who are real flesh and blood, haunt the gold mines of South Africa. Because they often remain underground for weeks or months at a time, the ghost miners look like ghosts too. Lack of sunlight turns their skin a ghostly gray.
Who are the ghost miners? As Matthew Hart describes in his 2013 book titled Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal, the ghost miners are illegal gold miners. Many of South Africa’s gold mines are so large and so deep, with such complex tunnel systems, that mining companies aren’t able to stop trespassers. But because they risk being caught as they enter and exit the mines, many ghost miners stay down for long periods of time, hoping to find gold. Hart writes that in the the Zulu language, the slang term for an illegal miner is “zama-zama,” which means “try your luck.”
Pale, scruffy miners prowling through deep, dark tunnels and trying to avoid detection—it’s the stuff of ghost stories. But the ghost miners are a serious problem too. For one, they torment the gold mining companies financially. Hart believes that as much as $2 billion worth of gold disappears into the hands of the phantom-like miners every year. The ghost miners also contribute to organized crime in South Africa. Powerful politicians and crime bosses are believed to be the real force behind many of the ghost miners, bribing police officers to ignore the illegal miners and finding buyers for the stolen gold.
The biggest problem, however, is the cost in human lives. Although some ghost miners are former professional miners who know how to stay safe, many have no safety training at all. Suffocating heat and humidity, falling rocks, tunnel collapses, fires, and other dangers often place the miners’ lives in jeopardy. In February 11 illegal miners were rescued after being trapped in an abandoned gold mine near Johannesburg. Others have not been so lucky. In 2009, 82 men believed to be illegal miners were killed in a fire at another gold mine in South Africa.
There are also sometimes violent skirmishes between ghost miners and public or private security forces. Hart tells of meeting Brad Wood, a mine security officer who had earned the nickname “Bad Brad” due to misbehavior while starring on the South African version of the reality TV show Big Brother. Bad Brad and his security team were inspecting a gold mine one day when they encountered a group of illegal miners. Gunfire was exchanged and at least four miners ended up dead, shot by Bad Brad himself. Bad Brad was charged with murder, but acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
One reason why there are so many ghost miners in South Africa (there could be thousands of them) is the high price of gold. As long as prices stay high, there will be a strong incentive for theft. Nevertheless, a lot could be done to reduce illegal gold mining and the related harms. Security could be improved while creating strict guidelines so that security officials avoid needless violence. Gold mines could pay higher wages and give back to local communities, helping local economies to flourish and creating jobs more attractive than illegal mining. (Sadly, some of South Africa’s gold mines do not pay their workers enough to live in dignity.) The jewelry industry could also use more recycled gold to reduce the overall need for new gold mining. In 2013, 59 percent of all newly mined gold was used to make jewelry.
More responsible conditions are possible in South Africa’s gold mines. At Brilliant Earth, we know this because we currently source a small percent of our diamonds from select South African diamond mines where accidents are rare, violence is absent, and there is no “ghost miner” problem. We hope that on a Halloween not too far in the future, South Africa’s ghost miners will have stepped out of the shadows and found new opportunities.