Trafficking survivor recalls . . .

Forced labour in the Zama-Zama underworld


MASERU - Thabo*’s dreams were shattered when he realised that the work he had hoped would change his life and that of his family for the better was actually a scam that would later pose a serious threat to his life and cause him ceaseless nightmares. About three years ago, Thabo received a phone call from a friend who worked in South Africa for a construction company informing him that he had secured employment for him with the same company.

The news was sweet music to Thabo since he had been unemployed for a long time without any hope of ever getting a job owing to his lack of experience and qualifications. The first thing that came to his mind was the promise of a better life that he would live which would enable him to take care of his ageing parents. All he thought about was getting onto the next available taxi to Mpumalanga to start working on the promised job.

He had no idea of what fate had in store for him, like scores of other unemployed people like him who are desperate for a job. In desperation he only started counting his chickens before they were hatched. Narrating his ordeal from his home in Berea after spending two years in a South African prison for being an illegal immigrant, Thabo says everybody was happy for him when he found the job and nobody suspected any foul of any sort.

Upon his arrival in Mpumalanga, he was welcomed by his friend who stayed in a shack. “He told me I would meet his boss the next day about the job. Curiosity got the better of me and I kept asking my friend about the job, what I would be doing and the money. “Part of me was worried about the job but another part was just happy that I had finally got a job after years of being unemployed. My friend told me to stop worrying and wait for my new boss who was to explain everything to me the following morning,” Thabo recalls.

He adds: “To my surprise, the boss arrived in the middle of that night and I was told to get into his car and he drove to an abandoned mine where I met three other boys who came in a different car. I was suddenly confused and the four of us were forced to go underground where we joined other young men who were already working down there.

“There was no time for negotiations or questions as everything was done at gunpoint, the men who told us what to do were mean-looking and clearly meant business. “It eventually hit home that the job I thought I had finally got actually did not exist. I realised that I was being trafficked into forced labour, working under duress at gunpoint.”

Thabo had stumbled on an illegal diamond mining process at a disused mine and he, along with his newly recruited co-workers, instantly joined a workforce called Zama-Zama in the dangerous underworld of illegal mining. The environment was of course completely unsafe and sleeping arrangements were chaotic as the miners slept where they worked, he says.

“The rocks were all over the place and they could fall at any time. Guns were everywhere and one could get shot at the slightest irritation. Miners who tried to smuggle diamonds were openly shot and left to rot right under our noses,” he says. He claims they spent a whole year working underground, digging the diamond non-stop for the tyrant bosses who only fed them bread and water.

“The life we led underground was horrible and we all prayed for police to come and arrest us so that we could be rescued from the hardship we endured down there,” he adds. According to Thabo, the disguise about construction work was only a tactic used by their bosses and their associates to lure unsuspecting people into enslaving them in the illegal mines.

“Not everyone was taken to work underground, it all depended on the need of the bosses. For instance, some of the girls captured under similar traps were forced into prostitution while others were pushed into forced labour like the men. “While we slaved away under duress like that, our enforcers sometimes forced us to take drugs so that we could endure the long, hard labour. What broke our hearts mostly was the thought that our families believed we had abandoned them when in fact we were working as modern day slaves,” he says.

He adds: “I cannot regret accepting the job I was offered because I was desperate to get employed, but the lesson learnt is that one must always ensure that the job on offer is legitimate before accepting it.”To add salt to the wound, after spending a whole year working without pay, the minute Thabo and his colleagues came out of the mine shaft they were arrested by police and charged with trespassing, illegal possession of diamonds, illegal mining and working illegally in South Africa.

Tales of the lure of hefty incomes promising to take Basotho from penury to riches overnight have become the archetypal narrative which recurs all the time yet more often than not they end in misery; forced labour for males and forced prostitution for females.Earlier this year Public Eye interviewed one man, Moeketsi Moeketsi, who idolised his decision to work in illegal mining which he said raised him from the dust of privation and made him a livestock owner of note. But even in those isolated cases of seeming success, the spectre of gross exploitation runs through such efforts.

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