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They Dig, They Die

Thousands of Africans crawl underground every day into dangerous, abandoned mineshafts chasing the allure of gold that promises better living in tough economic times. Who are they and why do they risk their lives?



They call them zama zamas which means ‘those who try their luck’. Wearing his traditional Zulu earrings, looking hirsute with whiskers on his face, this is Dumisani Ngcamu, otherwise known as Ntshebe – ‘the bearded man’. He is an illegal miner and has been risking his life for eight years trying to scrape a handful of gold dust underground to support his eight kids. He works in abandoned mineshafts around Johannesburg, a city in South Africa built on gold.

“You see, here in Johannesburg, gold is everywhere but people don’t know that. Sometimes you don’t have to go deep, it’s closer than you think,” says Ngcamu.

A trip to Johannesburg from his village Nquthu, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, looking for greener pastures, led Ngcamu to illegal mining even though he never worked in a mine. Immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe, the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique introduced Ngcamu to this industry as a marketer of syndicates.

“I was earning R30 ($2.20) a day, I did not mind how small it was because I had food on my plate. I knew this was a serious job when I got arrested, but luckily for me I had learned every process of mining. I knew where to find gold,” says Ngcamu.

After he was released he went on his own and started mining in built-up areas.

“I mined within near distances, I reached barriers where you would find houses and firms, I then realized I could make more money in abandoned mines. That’s when I started working with other people,” says Ngcamu.

It all revolves around a shanty town called Denver, near Johannesburg, where most of the residents are from the KwaZulu-Natal. Here, shacks and shady corners are full of idle youth who drink to drown their sorrows and clusters of people playing chess and cooking meat. The majority of people in this area are the poorest of the poor and try to make a living through illegal mining and crime.

“Whenever government officials wanted a gunman, they knew Denver was the perfect place. R5,000 ($370) was enough for criminals here, but today you won’t find a single criminal because everyone is involved in mining,” says Ngcamu.

“You would hear that a policeman has been shot at Denver hostel on a daily basis, no police officer would enter this place back in those days, but today we are able to communicate with them.”

The troubles on the surface match the problems underground. There’s fighting between factions and theft among rival groups of illegal miners.

“They used to rob our stuff. When you’re down there you need to act like an animal. Things I encounter down there are devastating. I saw someone being hit with a hammer on the head; if you are a handsome young man, without a beard like mine [laughs], they would rape you and kill you. I was lucky not to get caught. Shootings and a person being lost is common in there.”

Ngcamu survived a horror encounter with a rival faction.

“You even have slaves. They catch you, tie you up like you a goat, hold you hostage and make you work for days. Your job would be to work and you deliver the gold dust up until the exit point. If you say you tired, they kill you, and luckily I managed to escape,” he says, while chuckling.

He says foreigners are most prone to such torture.

“When I look at this country, foreigners are not seen as humans, they are seen as animals. Those [foreigners] who I mined with were mostly victims of such things. If it is a group of mixed nationals, then things will get sour.”

Such experiences led Ngcamu to appoint people to act as security guards who would look out for them while they dig. He knew where to find them.

“You know who is a criminal in your area so we appointed criminals from Denver. We told them the money they will make with us is better than what they would make from crime.”

“Now we are free, because we know people are looking out for us. Everyone is benefiting. Police are happy because there is no crime,” he says.

Illegal miners even pay the guards with a plate of gold dust after they have returned. As it is a community business, women and children are also involved. Women are mostly employed in the manufacturing of the gold. They are tasked to use a piece of equipment called a phenduka – a hand driven cylinder.

Iron balls and water are added inside the perforated phenduka stand. After spinning, the water is sifted into plastic buckets until liquid mercury is visible when being strained. The end process is burning the liquid mercury until it becomes solid gold, then it goes to the market.

David van Wyk, a mining analyst who has studied illegal miners for decades as a researcher for the Bench Marks Foundation, knows the lives, challenges and syndicates of zama zamas. You’d be forgiven if you mistook him for Albert Einstein with his vast knowledge.

“In Africa, before colonialism, people did small-scale mining. Traditional African mining was small scale artisanal mining all over Africa. You still find it in Burkina Faso, it also happened around Great Zimbabwe. If we want a situation that is not so disorderly, that is no so violent and unsafe, we need to pass regulations for small-scale mining and allow it to take place,” he says.

According to Van Wyk, small-scale mining started 200 years ago, before big companies started operating, but it is seen as a threat to the weakening South African mining industry.

“As we have a downward curve in the availability of gold mining, we have an upward curve in small-scale mining.”

“Economically their costs are very low, they do not use a lot of water they do not use a lot of electricity, they don’t use a lot of technology,” says Van Wyk.

He believes the reason there is factional fighting is because of the syndicates the zama zamas work for. Syndicates struck a deal with the zama zamas to buy gold from them; they then sell the gold to the formal economy. They provide zama zamas with food and water and make deductions when workers, like Ngcamu, return from digging. Van Wyk, though, says some of the syndicates are against illegal mining.

“My allegation against the Chamber of Mines, who are always making a noise about zama zamas, is that their people are involved. My second problem with the Chamber of Mines is that they represent monopoly mining, that’s why they are very much against zama zamas.”

“In South Africa, if you are black and you shoot an animal, you are a poacher, but if you are white and shoot an animal you are a trophy hunter; same applies to mining.”

The Chamber of Mines of South Africa refutes the claims.

“It is simply a mischievous claim. As is the case in most countries around the world, mineral resources in South Africa belong to the state and may only be mined by licensed operators. It doesn’t matter whether it is small-scale, medium-scale or large-scale mining, the point is, it needs to be regulated,” says Charmane Russell, spokesperson of the Chamber of Mines.

“If we formalize zama zamas and actually create laws and regulations and organize them into cooperatives, then there can be training in mine health and safety for these guys,” says Van Wyk.

Mines Rescue Services has been rescuing trapped illegal miners for the past 92 years.

“The challenges we face is that there are no maps, no mine plans. We do not know where to go. We work in extremely dangerous conditions. That’s why we have to work with illegal miners to guide us to a place where these guys are trapped,” says Christo de Klerk, CEO of Mines Rescue Services.

De Klerk and his crew use specialized equipment to roam underground and search for illegal miners. He believes the conditions illegal miners face is inhumane.

“If you look at the amount of the bodies we have recovered, a lot of those bodies were killed during the faction fighting; these people are armed and very dangerous.”

“Authorities have to get together to stop them, we have to stop the inflow of illegal immigrants, we have to try and close all these holes, the prosecution of these people is important but the main thing is that the syndicates who buy gold and sell the gold must be infiltrated and stopped,” says De Klerk.

Ngcamu disagrees.

“Government needs to rethink things; they shouldn’t listen to those who say shafts should be closed because it is risky. We know it is risky; they should stop acting act like they are in sympathy with our lives when they just want to prevent us from getting small fortunes. We’re hungry, they should let us eat,” says an irate Ngcamu.

Not far from Denver, Ngcamu takes us to a place where they first started mining. It seemed like a long day at work for the security guards who were looking out for the illegal miners. Not far away is a metals factory. Pointing towards it, Ngcamu has a story to tell.

“You see when they started operating here, they would call the police on a daily basis to come and arrest us for mining next to their company. Luckily for us, the officers were black, they were our brothers, and they understood us. Criminals used to steal their metals, but now it has all stopped. They do their business we do ours, it’s just a mutual agreement,” he says.

After some explanation and pleading, one of the security guards who didn’t want to be identified agrees to speak and sugarcoats how they deal with criminals.

“We tell them what they’re doing is not right and should never repeat it. A lot of people know what gold looks like so they would be taking chances to undermine us,” he chuckles.

“You see, if government closes these mines that would mean he has killed all of these guards and their families. That would make government responsible for deaths of these people,” says Ngcamu.

The whole country was in shock as scores of miners were rescued in an abandoned mine in Langlaagte, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Four dead bodies were recovered in a day that proved to be the last throw of the dice for illegal mining, events there brought about a lot of public debate on how to stop it.

“What happened in Laanglagte doesn’t deter me; whenever you enter a certain job you will face challenges. Even in firms, you can die reading a newspaper; you can die even though you occupy a top position. So what happened to our brothers won’t make us cry, to our brothers’ families we send our condolences but we expect anything down there. When we go down we pray, when we return we pray,” says an unapologetic Ngcamu.

The mine in Laanglagte is abandoned by Central Rand Gold, leaving opportunities for Ngcamu and his crew to make a living. Van Wyk believes Central Rand Gold, listed on the in the London Stock Exchange, should never have received a mining licence in the first place. The mineshaft is situated at George Harrison Park which has been a national monument since 1946. Next to the park is the 99-year-old school, TC Esterhuysen Primary School, with its football pitch 10 meters from the mine pit.

“The mine did not have water, so they used the school’s water, which is illegal as well. When we talk about illegal mining, we always blame zama zamas, but people don’t know how many big monopoly mining operations, listed on the London Stock Exchange, that are operating illegally and flaunting the laws of this country,” says Van Wyk.

Ngcamu says nothing will stop them from mining.

“If I stop, what will I say to my two kids at university? People need to be fed, for me stopping is not an option.”

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Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?




How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?

As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.

Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.

Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.

What is climate change?

First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.

The causes of climate change can be any combination of:

  • Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
  • Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
  • Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).

What changes have been detected?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.

The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.

A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.

Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.

This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.

Weather attribution

Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.

The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.

One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.

As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.

Adapting to a changing climate

Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.

Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation



Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.

As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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How LinkedIn Is Looking To Help Close The Ever-Growing Skills Gap




As the job market has evolved, so too have the skills required of seekers. But when 75% of human resources professionals say a skills shortage has made recruiting particularly challenging in recent months, it would appear as though the workforce hasn’t quite kept pace. Now LinkedIn is stepping in to help close the gap.

On Tuesday, the professional social network announced the launch of a “Skills Assessments” tool, through which users can put their knowledge to the test. Those who pass are given the opportunity to display a badge that reads “passed” next to the skill on their profile pages, a validation of sorts that LinkedIn hopes will encourage skills development among its users and help better match potential employees with the right employers.  

READ MORE | Not Just Equality, But Recognition Of Excellence

“We see an evolving labor market and much more sophistication in how recruiters and hiring managers look for skills. … We also see a changing learning market,” says Hari Srinivasan, senior director of product management at LinkedIn Learning. “The combination of those two made us excited about changing our opportunity marketplace to make the hiring side and the learning side work better together.”

So how exactly does it work? Let’s say a user wants to showcase her proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Rather than simply listing “Excel” in the skills section of her profile, she can take a multiple-choice test to demonstrate the extent to which she is an expert.

If she aces the test, not only will a badge verifying her aptitude will appear on her profile, but she will be more likely to surface in searches by recruiters, who can search for candidates by skill in the same way they might do so by college or employer. If she fails, she can take the test again, but she’ll have to wait a few months—plenty of time to develop her skillset.   

The tool has been in beta mode since March, and while just 2 million people have used it—a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s 630 million members—early results seem promising. According to LinkedIn, members who’ve completed skills assessments have been nearly 30% more likely to land jobs than their counterparts who did not take the tests.

READ MORE | Challenging The Gender Divide

“This has been a really good way for members to represent what they know, what they are good at,” says Emrecan Dogan, LinkedIn group product manager.

While new to LinkedIn, the practice of assessing candidates’ skills has been a standard among hiring managers for decades. But when research commissioned by LinkedIn revealed that 69% of employees feel that skills have become more important to recruiters than education, LinkedIn felt as though this was the time to give job seekers the opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.

As important as the hard skills that members can put to the test through LinkedIn’s new tool may be, Dawn Fay, senior district president at recruiting firm Robert Half, encourages those on both side of the job search not to forget the importance of soft skills. “You wouldn’t want to rule somebody in or out just based on how they did on one particular skill assessment,” she says.

“Have another data point that you can use, question people about how they did on something and see if it’s something that can feed into the puzzle to find out if somebody is going to be a good fit.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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