South Africa’s elite police unit vowed on Tuesday to hunt down the kingpins behind widespread illegal mining, as more than 20 men trapped down a mothballed gold mine were due in court.
The Hawks’s Major General Shadrack Sibiya said that 22 artisanal miners due in the dock had given the police information that could crack the gangs they work for.
“We are convinced that information obtained will lead us to the kingpins,” he said.
“We will be going after the masterminds. We cannot allow this to continue.”
A total of 25 people have so far emerged from the disused mine east of Johannesburg, risking arrest, a large fine and a possible jail sentence.
Police said the suspects were all aged between 20 and 40 years-old, all foreign nationals and most did not have immigration papers.
As the rescue operation entered its third day, emergency responders were still looking for around five more men believed to be hiding under ground and fearing arrest.
“That figure is based on the tip-off we received on Sunday… that there were 30 people underground,” said municipal emergency spokesman Roggers Mamaila.
“There is still movement underground, so we expect the last group of people to surrender themselves.”
Much of the area around Johannesburg is pockmarked with old shafts, a testament to the city’s century old history of gold mining.
While many are no longer commercially viable, they still contain enough deposits to attract scores of the city’s unemployed, and those from much farther afield.
Many shafts include elaborate networks of runners, who bring in food, drinks and other essentials for miners, who police believe spend up to two weeks underground.
Accidents are commonplace. In 2009 82 illegal diggers died in a disused gold mine shaft when a fire broke out underground.
The most recent rescue effort was launched on Sunday, after cries for help were heard on a dusty patch of grassland in Benoni, east of Johannesburg.
The men became trapped when large rocks fell, or were pushed, to block the entrance to the shaft.
Mine owners Gold One International Limited said on Monday they will reseal the open shaft on March 3.