Mines are closing across South Africa, forcing miners into illegal shafts, many of which face imminent collapse. Channel 4 News reports on miners risking their lives to feed their families.
Behind the hidden entrance to the Indwe coal mine, in the Eastern Cape Province, is a dangerous and illegal coal mine. Founded in the late 19th century, it was one of the first in South Africa, and was officially closed 100 years ago.
It is one of around 20 illegal shafts in the one mountain alone. But in the wake of strikes taking place at mines, and closures across the country, miners who have lost their jobs elsewhere come here to mine illegally.
The tunnels, held up with very basic supports, could collapse at any time. But the men must work without any protective helmets or safety equipment, and flooding is an ever present threat.
Nelson, 19, comes to work at the mine after college. He works at weekends for up to 12 hours. By selling the precious coal, he can earn 70 rands – the equivalent of about £5 a day. With his earnings, he helps his mother, Nowqakazani Dyantyi, who has seven other children and grandchildren to look after.
She has said that although she is proud of him, she is worried about the conditions in which he works.
“The money I get here a day is 70 rand and of that money I give my mother 50 rand to buy something at home, something like meat and cabbage,” he said. “And to that 70 rand I take only 20 rand, that 20 rand is my pocket money at school to use for something that I want at school. Then my brother, I don’t want to lie, I didn’t give him anything.”
Nelson works up to 600m underground. He knowns it’s a dangerous business, but “I need to fix my things,” he says.
Villagers depend on the mountain. The coal underneath it supports several hundred families. At the top is where tribal traditions are performed.
At the end of his shift, Nelson points out where he was two weeks ago, when he too underwent a tradition. As with most boys who work there, he had a circumcision ceremony and spent weeks fending for himself in the mountain before he was considered a “man”.
“They call it ‘initiation’,” he says. “They circumcise boys to become men.”
But Nelson was paying the bills even before this rite of passage. Fortunately for him, his boss, Koti Buler, has a good reputation for paying on time.
Koti, however, has fears about the survival of the community. One of Indwe’s most experienced miners who lost his job working at a big mining company 15 years ago, he has set up two illegal shafts here, despite knowing that he was breaking the law.
“The government sent us for training and promised to give us permits,” he says. They never did.
The community were told a mining company called Elitheni had been given a licence to operate there. He now believes Elitheni will throw them out and their livelihood will be lost.
“We might not see the end of the year,” Koti added.
Elitheni has already stamped its mark on the area. The company, whose biggest shareholder SNP is London-based, has plans to extract more than 25m tonnes of coal in this area.
Just a few miles from Indwe, they are already digging. Channel 4 News made repeated journeys to their site to speak to the manager in an attempt to find out what their intention was for Nelson and his colleagues, but without success. One time, security guards suggested trying their main office in town, but they were not able to offer anyone to talk.
It is a Sunday, and in Indwe, the community is praying. Their future is in the hands of the Elitheni coal company. They hope that a superior power is on their side.
Meanwhile, Nelson has bigger dreams. He hopes to be the best gospel singer in South Africa.
“I think when I’m a big singer I don’t think I will come back to mining coal. And I know that all my family, my father and my mother, I know they’re going to be proud about that, so that’s why I like to sing,” he said.