Millions of ounces of unmined gold are still believed to lie below the surface, fuelling a booming but frequently deadly illicit industry
As he prepares to descend an abandoned mineshaft in the Johannesburg suburb of Roodepoort, Fix, a sinewy informal goldminer from Lesotho, recounts stories of subterranean gun battles and unearthing the scattered bones of those who came before him.
This is very dangerous work, he says, draining a quart of beer for courage. But theres a lot of money down there.
South Africas commercial capital of approximately 5 million inhabitants sits atop some of the worlds largest gold deposits, as evinced by the more than 200 towering spoil heaps that punctuate its sprawling cityscape. Millions of ounces of unmined gold are still believed to lie beneath its surface, fuelling a booming but frequently deadly illicit goldmining industry.
Fix, recruited and brought to South Africa by a criminal syndicate in 2013, has spent six years traversing Johannesburgs estimated 140km (87-mile) labyrinth of underground mine tunnels. Sometimes, he says, he can go down a shaft in the far west of the city and emerge bleary eyed on its opposite edge a week later.
In some mining areas surrounding Johannesburg, informal miners have been rumoured to spend as long as six months underground, sustained by makeshift underground villages where basic foodstuffs, airtime, alcohol and even sex are sold at dramatically inflated prices.
Media reports suggest that more than 300 informal miners most of them illegal, and known locally as zama zamas, meaning take a chance in isiZulu have been killed by collapsing mineshafts or, more frequently, in turf wars between rival syndicates. Many more are likely still unaccounted for underground.