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The frightening and dark underbelly of the zama-zamas exposed

5 August 2022 9:56 AM
Tags:
Human trafficking
Police
Criminal
zama-zamas

Bongani Bingwa speaks to Dr Marcel van der Watt - crime expert and director of the Research Institute at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation in Washington DC.
An abandoned mine. © mulderphoto/123rf.com

The dark underbelly of life as a zama-zama is a shocking one, that often involves human trafficking, slave labour, dangerous working conditions and death, according to an international crime expert.

Through interviews with secret whistleblowers, photos and video footage, Dr Marcel van der Watt has for years had the inside scoop on what goes on in the darkness of illegal mines.

Bongani Bingwa spoke to van der Watt, an international crime expert and director of the Research Institute at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (Ncose).

He is also a former member of the South African Police Service (SAPS), hostage negotiator and investigator attached to the Hawks (DPCI) and Sexual Offences (FCS) Unit.

It's an all-consuming system and very few are able to live through the network for many years. Many men come as young boys and are recruited to South Africa by force. They've been made to understand they'll be making money in South Africa working on a mine, and it's everything but what's been told.

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

Understanding the inner workings of the zama-zama operation meant having risky conversations with people, that few are prepared to do.

A gentleman called me while in Cape Town, saying his conscience was bothering him as he's a trafficker. He takes weekly trips to Mozambique with three taxis, bringing in about 60 men per week, as young as 15. Many of these people want to come forward with information and offer to become agents of the police because of the egregious nature of what they see.

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

Van der Watt painted a shocking picture of the horrid life of zama-zamas and others living in the local communities where they operate.

There's one example of boys being taken to the Welkom area....murder, suicide, women being lowered into these mines and people dying of sex trafficking. People stay for extended periods of time, and only after you've survived for two years, then you climb the ranks and could be given a firearm or drugs. It's a vicious cycle.

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

But the tentacles of the networks reach far and wide, by means of corruption and collusion with others, points out van der Watt.

Local mortuaries have been paid to pick up the bodies. The bodies that are not able to exit the mine are thrown into a specific mining shaft. One informant told me a mining shaft with bodies was being filled to the brim.

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

Van der Watt said there was "historic amnesia" on the part of government as to the extent of this problem.

So much of this has been reported to human trafficking task teams. The Free State New Age had a comprehensive expose in 2017 where they implicate police officials, prosecutors and private security firms. The one person I interviewed referred to a very well known politician in the Free State pocketing money from these illegal operations.

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

Van der Watt also pointed to a subcontinental network of money laundering and corruption, funded by illegal mining.

What is the money funding on the continent? Other information we received over the years has been terror funding. There's so many unturned stones. If you see the kind of firearms they have, where do they get this?

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

He believes there are individuals in official capacities that are creating an enabling environment for this economic criminality.

There's a lot of money to be made here. There's a clear nexus between some of these groups and these collateral criminal activities.

Dr Marcel van der Watt, international crime expert

Scroll up to listen to more of this fascinating interview.




5 August 2022 9:56 AM
Tags:
Human trafficking
Police
Criminal
zama-zamas

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