This article first appeared in Moneyweb.

When Joburg City workers were attempting to erect an electronic billboard on the M2 East alerting motorists to traffic conditions ahead, the sign would work for a day and then fail.

City inspectors went to investigate and found that trenches had been dug alongside the highway, and the electric cables removed. Each time the cable was replaced, it would be gone within a day or two.

On further investigation, in addition to the cable thieves, illegal miners – also known as zama-zamas – were found to be working an old underground mine in the area. This is the original Main Reef, where gold was first discovered in Johannesburg. And this is pretty much how the original miners of the 1880s would have mined – with picks, shovels and sweat.

From the east rand to the west, you can find explosives for sale at some of the illegal ‘refineries’ being operated above ground by the zama-zamas. Things got hairy late last year when blasting was found to be occurring within 30 centimetres of a Transnet fuel pipe. Had it struck the pipe, the devastation would likely have spread for kilometres.

It would have been the worst disaster in Joburg’s history. A veld fire could just as easily have ignited a fuel line, with the same catastrophic results.

Joburg’s infrastructure is under threat, prompting the city to set up an Infrastructure Protection Unit tasked with monitoring and protecting roads, traffic signals, waste management facilities, underground pipelines and other key infrastructure.

“Policing the illegal miners is not easy,” says the unit’s head, Conel Mackay. “All we could do in this situation [was] go to the communities who are involved in this activity and warn them that they were putting themselves, their families and huge parts of the city at risk.

“This seems to have worked. The zama-zamas appear to have moved their activities to less dangerous areas.”

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.