Photography by:
  • Potsiso Phasha

Photo essay: Scavenger economies of the mine dumps

  • By Potsiso Phasha
  • Date of publication: 01 May 2014

“I work here and whatever I make is for my house back home. I will never stay here – I am here for work alone. Life is hard. But you must never suffer as long as you still have your hands; that’s what my father taught me. He taught me you must work hard to have your own things” – Tofara*, a Zimbabwean national who works on the mine dumps.

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In 1886, a prospector digging in the ground in an area just west of what is now Johannesburg discovered gold. His discovery led to the establishment of the world’s greatest goldfield, the Witwatersrand, a reef stretching some 55km in an east-west direction (Harrison and Zack, 2012; Mphephu, 2003). Over the last hundred years, this reef has produced nearly 50 000 tons of gold (Mphephu, 2003). The discovery of gold in this region of South Africa laid the basis for what is today a giant region of inter-connected towns and cities, housing almost 13 million people and contributing over a third of national economic output. It also contributed immensely to the development of the country as a whole.

As more and more mining activity took place on the Witwatersrand, its physical landscape began to change. A number of mine tailings began to define the landscape – a result of mining operations where large volumes of ore were mined and brought to the surface where it was crushed and gold extracted (Mphephu, 2003). The pale mine tailings have since become ‘permanent’ features of our landscape. According to Mphephu (2003) there are over 250 mine tailings covering an area of 44 000 hectares. At the time of their establishment, mine tailings – commonly referred to as ‘the mine dumps’ – contained fine traces of gold which could not be extracted. With advances in mining technologies and increasing gold prices the tailings have, over the last two decades, been reprocessed to recover the gold still in them.

Today the region’s physical landscape is once again in a state of transition due to this reprocessing. The reworking, in which mining machinery reshuffles the mine dumps, has resulted in an unusual scavenger sub-economy. Every day from dawn to very late in the evening, groups consisting only of men intensively and illicitly work the polluted soil of these pale landscapes in search of scrap metals – leftover fragments of old mine operations that are either surfaced through the mechanical reshuffling or manually dug up. This is best seen on the mine dumps in the eastern edge of Johannesburg along Heidelberg and Rosettenville Roads, the focus of this photo essay. As the scrap metals surfacing in one site get depleted, the men move on to other areas, often resorting to manual excavation in order to maintain their livelihoods.

The intensity of this scavenger sub-economy is intriguing. On the one hand it is very different from what is conventionally understood and valued as an ‘urban economy’ by city-planners. On the other hand it is worth asking whether this economy, although largely invisible, is any different from the early prospecting activities – where opportunity-seekers dug in the ground for scraps of gold a century ago, in the same area – that were the very foundations of the city-region we have today.

This photo essay follows a group of men in the Rosettenville and Booysens areas of Johannesburg, who make a living through ‘scavenging’ for scraps of metal on old mine dumps. It places them in the context of the strange and distorted mining landscapes they inhabit, and reveals some of the key dynamics of their activities, from the moment of unearthing of leftover metal shards to when these are sold to scrapyards in the nearby Johannesburg central business district. Ultimately, the essay portrays the workings of an invisible but vibrant economy on the region’s mine dumps – seemingly dead spaces typically overlooked as mere waste ground.

The mine dump off Rosettenville Road south-east of the Johannesburg central business district is interesting because of its ‘dual’ nature. It is formed from mining waste dug up from underground, as well as construction rubble that has been dumped there. Both layers contain traces of metals. Its dual nature is reflected in the fact that both a mining company currently re-mining it for gold, and a group of men searching it for metal waste, are now reshaping the landscape.


Working in these landscapes has dangers, the biggest being the fact that the ground gets more destabilized the more excavating the men do. With no proper mining tools, their work creates cliffs which regularly collapse. This particular area in the photograph has a large concentration of steel but the cliff now has a crack, and rock chips off a number of times a day. Most of the men now fear digging here. The instability of this landscape is further aggravated by rain. “Water is dangerous because it goes between the crack and makes the ground loose”, says Ronny, one of the men who works on the mine dump every day.

Most of the men dig very close to the edge of the hill. Although dangerous, digging here has some advantages. The biggest one is that boulders and undesired rubble can be thrown off the dump with ease and so do not need to be carried away. This facilitates faster digging, implying more money can be made in a day. Working further from the edge means the process of digging is hampered by all the rubble that gets unearthed and is left lying around covering other potential areas for digging. Working on the edge is also advantageous because when it is time to leave at the end of the day, the metals are easily thrown off the cliff to the bottom where they can be collected again and carried away. This way the men can climb down the hill without an excess load.

The mine dump undergoes physical change every day. With various metals ranging from steel (heavy, light, stainless); aluminum; copper; brass and lead being extracted, a series of ‘caves’ remain, indicating to the other men where it has been dug before. The steep gradient of the landscape prevents them from digging too deep as more and more cliffs and caves are created, in turn increasing the danger of working these spaces. Hence the men constantly move around to dig in new spots.

Ronny walks back from fetching water and buying cigarettes from an informal trader not far from the mine dump. Whenever one of the men leaves the dump to go buy something, the other men give him their money to buy for them as well. Sometimes they go all the way into the Johannesburg CBD to buy bread to eat over lunch. This interaction demonstrates a mutual relationship between two different informal economies – street trading and “illegal” mining, but also the ability of these economies to bleed into the formal economy.

Most of the men on the mine dumps are Zimbabweans. Ronny talks about how working on the mine dumps is a real job for him, the same way people go to work in offices every day. As such, he has developed a strong sense of work ethic and discipline. “South Africans do not like these kinds of jobs because they are laborious. You have to work very hard. They prefer better jobs, white collar jobs at the office. Because they have an ID they can access more things like applying for loans”, says Ronny. “I have to save and take everything back to Zimbabwe. Every time I go home, I take everything I own. When I come back I start from scratch”.

“I have been working on this mine dump for eight years. I started on the other side. I am married to these mine dumps” – Victor.

Victor, along with the other men, speaks of another gang of men that operates on the mine dumps. Their mission is to acquire as much of the steel getting unearthed by the mining machinery as possible, with as little work as possible. They follow the machinery as it moves around reshuffling the mine dump, assuming ‘ownership’ of that part of the dump, and everything that the mining machinery brings to the surface. The gang comprises about 20 men, who are feared for not hesitating to deploy violence to secure the any of the metals the machines unearth. They are not interested in doing any manual work and as such ‘appropriate’ the big mining machines to work for them. In instances where very little steel is brought to the surface, the gang is also known to rob the other men of the scrap metals they have found, claiming that it was dug from an area that ‘belonged’ to them. This reveals a criminal economy living off an “illegal” economy that also feeds an informal trader economy. While some of the interactions in the space where these different kinds of economies exist are defined by mutual gain, others are driven by individual benefit. The result in the latter case often has life threatening consequences for those actors with lesser power.

Digging on the mine dump is a gamble. There are no guarantees that metals will be found on any given day. On this day, after many hours of digging, brothers Tofara and Ronny had only recovered a few strands of steel. Late in the afternoon they moved to another spot to start digging. As it was already late and they were frustrated, they decided to spend the night on the mine dump digging. “If I had a lot of money I wouldn’t be here. If you were to give me money today, I’d go straight to Zimbabwe. I was last there two months ago. I love Zimbabwe. I have my own land there. It is huge. I have cattle on it and my younger brothers and cousins take care of them. I also love our president. Not ‘like’; I love him! He gives his people land. Which other president will do that?” says Ronny.

After the metals are thrown down the mine dump, they are gathered into a bag and prepared to be sold on the same day. The heavy load is carried for a few meters to the road where a small truck comes to pick the men up. The men have a good relationship with a scrap dealer in the CBD and he offers them transport from the mine dump at no charge.

Although the men are here for the same thing, with no guarantees of success, there is no form of competition between them. They work together, eat together and share their tools. They also respect each other’s workspace. In instances where one is not done digging in a particular spot, he is allowed a chance to continue in the same spot the following day. “Mdala”, in the picture, spent yesterday relaxing in the city’s parks in the CBD, and today continues where he left off. He says he came back to dig as he had run out of money.

Ronny digs in his pocket to see how much copper he has accumulated. Of all the metals, copper is the most precious due to its high retail price. When recovered, it is immediately put away, normally in the pocket, to ensure that it is not forgotten on the mine dump at the end of the day.

The scrap dealers to whom the men sell complain when copper is still covered with a plastic casing, and often reject it on this basis. So the process of trading the scrap metal involves a phase where it is cleaned on site to ensure that dealers do not reject it or offer a lower rate. The men burn the copper wires so that the casing melts off and the copper wires inside are exposed.

Each metal has its own retail price. Copper, in the picture, has the highest value sold at a rate between R48 and R50 per kilogram; brass is R25/kg; stainless steel R8/kg; lead R7/kg; heavy steel, which is the most prominent of all the excavations, is sold at R2,50/kg while light steel trades at R1,60. The men are very aware of what is valuable and what is not – and how to treat the most valuable. Copper is the ultimate prize.

At the end of the day, the men make a quick cell phone call to their scrap yard owner and within 10 minutes his truck stops beside the mine dump. The metals are weighed and the men paid immediately. Immediate access to cash means they are able to attend to daily bills such as food. Tofara talks about how, as a Zimbabwean, the cash payment arrangement is perfect for him as it requires no paperwork. Transactions are started and concluded within minutes. Being able to sell the metals on the same day saves the men money because they do no have any storage costs to pay for. All their scrap metal is now in somebody else’s hands to store at their cost.

The Booysens mine dump, a few kilometers west of the Rosettenville Road dump, is relatively flat with a lot of vegetation. After some digging the landscape begins to take on a different form. As it was shortly after gold was discovered in Johannesburg, heaps of underground soil define the terrain, marking the depths of the digging. The mounds of unearthed material reveal a series of past movements over the landscapes and the traces of decisions made on it, and speak to the men of where and how deep to dig before moving on. The pursuit of opportunity is made visible through the day to day changes in the landscape. In the distance, the tall buildings of the Johannesburg CBD, a city built from these same kind of excavations a century ago, can just be seen.

In the same way as copper goes through fire to get cleaned before it is sold, steel needs to be cleaned by knocking off the hardened bits of soil covering it. The pieces have been underground for a long time and are in a process of decomposition. Tlou, pictured here, talks about how when these metals were disposed of by the mines they were coated with chemicals that increased their rate of decomposition. The bucket on the right in the picture contains heavy steel that now looks like a rock. Once it is crushed, the rust falls off and the steel inside is recovered.

“I don’t want to do this anymore, man. I want to do other things, I just need money to start. R2000 would be okay to start. I want to buy things and sell to people. It is almost Christmas time now, people are going back home (to Zimbabwe) and they will be looking to buy clothes and toys and stuff. I must make money, my man”, says Ronny. He says the pipe he is cutting in the picture will be his meal for tonight and for lunch tomorrow, while he and Ike (in the background) pursue a much bigger pipe.

Ike and Ronny discovered this long pipe together one day while walking from the Booysens mine dump. From the road they saw a brown pipe jutting out from the earth, and when they got to it discovered it was much longer. They do not know exactly how long it is but judging by its thickness and diameter, at the current length of the furrow, it is estimated to weigh around two tons. Two tons of heavy steel would be worth around R5000.

The Booysens mine dump is bordered by a municipal waste dump. This dump has another group of men who also scavenge for recyclables such as plastic and glass. Like the gangs on the Rosettenville Road mine dump they are known to be a violent group that views the municipal waste dump as a space for them alone. They are strongly territorial and anybody who goes up the waste dump risks their life as the group understands strangers to be there to take their ‘money’, referring to the actual waste. While some informal economies gel with ease, others within the same informal economic space are strongly repellent to each other due to the struggle to maximize waste, or money, at the end of the day.


To some of the men, the mine dump has become more than a place of extraction. It is their home. They pay no rent, and they can work for much longer hours. This tunnel is on the Booysens mine dump. It links the municipal waste dump and the mine dump, and some of the men use it for shelter. “One guy discovered it. It was a small hole and he started to dig that hole more to see what was inside it. He found there was drums, steel drums, about maybe 80 of them. He did not tell anyone. Every day he would come here, take a few drums and go sell them at the scrap yard. He didn’t have to dig anymore. The other guys started to wonder what was happening and where this guy was getting the drums, because he would take like 3 each day, and in 30 minutes he was gone, gone home. So they followed him and found the drums. From then everyone began to take them and sell as well. And now it’s a place where people sleep”, explains Ronny. “It’s not too old. It was found last year towards the end of the year, like around this time”. About 8 people sleep in here every night.

It is much easier to dig during the rainy season. Some advantages of digging in the rainy season include the fact that the ground is softer and there is no dust. However there are also disadvantages. The soil is much heavier to lift with a shovel, and rain is also a disruption to the workflow and productivity. If it rains for a day or two in a row there will be no food to eat. The mine dump is empty and no one is working because all the holes that have been dug are filled with water, making it risky to walk around as it isn’t clear which is a puddle and which goes deeper. The rainy season does however present an opportunity to store some metals if they are in small quantity. Small but heavy pieces of steel are wrapped in plastic and placed at the bottom of the water filled holes, making them easier to access the following day when the water level had subsided.

The mine dumps are liminal environments. The popular perception that they are dead spaces makes them attractive to criminal elements. Copper wires, often stolen, are sometimes stripped and prepared for sale here. Not many people interact with these places, making them a safe haven for activities people would not do openly in other more accessible parts of the city.

While the process of unearthing scrap metal from the dump is itself laborious, the logistics of how these metals reach the market is equally so. On the Rosettenville Road dump, the scrap yard owner comes to collect the men and their metals. In Booysens, however, they have to transport the metals themselves, over a distance of close to three kilometers. While it is good to make the largest discoveries on the mine dumps, this comes at a cost. When the men have a fortunate day on the dump, unearthing a lot of metals, they may make more than one trip to the scrap yard to ensure that the finds do not over-accumulate, making it harder to transport them at the end of the day. The costs of transporting the metals come in various forms ranging from physical and mental exhaustion to possible physical injury if a large piece of metal falls on a leg, for example, or someone accidentally rolls down the mine dump – as Tofara has in the past. In some instances the discovery is a single, heavy piece of steel. Such finds immediately escalate the costs.

Large finds not only require more manpower to lift and move; they call for moving equipment – often makeshift trolleys. These have to be sound as well, and in this precarious economy this is seldom the case due to financial constraints. The trolleys are always shared, making them more vulnerable to damage. They also have a plastic base which bends under heavy load, immediately reducing their mobility and requiring more force to push and pull. This is a great challenge especially on the gravel road from the mine dump. The moment it reaches the street less manpower is required, although it still rolls with the base touching the ground. Ultimately, all costs end up being financial. The strength required could result in physical injury; the digging itself could lead to health problems as it has with Paul, who now has pneumonia; and the trolley needs maintenance as well.

One of the men who used to work the mine dumps has been given a job as a scrap yard assistant. As soon as scrap metals arrive he cuts up all ties and weighs them and pays out. He is the ‘face’ of the shop. The owner only appears in cases of large sales that require large amounts of cash. On this particular day for example, a group of men came in with over R4000 worth of copper. In these instances, the shop assistant calls the owner to bring more cash to complete the transaction. The owner must always have cash to pay for incoming scrap. When scrap fills up at his shop he quickly arranges transport to take it to a smelter in town, in order to always have adequate liquid cash.

In order to remain competitive and to secure clients, the scrap yard owner says he sometimes organises braais for the men, and every day he arranges soap and water for them to wash their hands. He needs to show a sign of appreciation to the men because there are many other scrap yards around and he could easily lose them as clients. This is particularly so due to the fact that the trading process is not always a smooth one. Some tensions often emerge between the buyer and seller as both parties are aware that the other will try to maximise gains. The seller sometimes has not cleaned the steel properly and it is still covered with other solids, or the copper wires are still covered with plastic. The buyer could easily offer a lower price, or claim that some steel is actually hardened solid and reject it. Both sides play this game of weight: the seller may try to allow additional weight to his metals by not cleaning them properly; while the scrap dealer might offer a much lower rate claiming he is also offered a lower price when he sells poorly cleaned material for smelting.

At the end, an agreement is reached and final payouts calculated. The calculator is a powerful symbol because it brings formal order into this scavenger economy. From sunrise to sunset there are no formal rules – although there are many hidden social codes and boundaries – that govern the way scrap metals are extracted from the earth. The calculator stands as a tool of governance, an important link between the formal and informal economies. It subjects the men to another world of rules and logic, a numerical system that makes the thrown-away metal fragments that they collect on the dead spaces of the mine dumps materially significant. This desk in the scrap shop also suggests a sense of authority – a station where matters are resolved and important things documented. With the calculator it establishes the domain of order. From this point on, the metals make their way into the formal economy.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of each individual

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Harrison, P. and Zack, T. (2012) The power of mining: the fall of gold and rise of Johannesburg, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol. 30(4), 551-570.

Mphephu, N.F (2003) Rehabilitation of Tailings Dams on the Central Rand; Johannesburg, available online: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/20289183/Rehabilitatio... (accessed 06 November 2013).


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