In South Africa, there are men who have lived underground for months or years at a time. They’ve suffered from malnourishment and tuberculosis. They’ve watched friends die in falls and sudden explosions. They’ve been subject to the whims of criminal syndicates and violence of security forces. These men, known as zama-zamas, are illegal miners, seeking flakes of gold in the carcass of tunnels and shafts left behind when the legal — but still-odious — mining industry collapsed:

The crash came in 1989. The price of gold had fallen by nearly two-thirds from its peak, inflation was rising, and investors were wary of instability during South Africa’s transition to democracy. (Nelson Mandela was freed the following year.) The rise of powerful unions, in the final years of apartheid, meant that it was no longer possible for the industry to pay Black workers “slave wages,” as the former chairman of one large mining company told me. The Free State goldfields eventually laid off more than a hundred and fifty thousand mine workers, or eighty per cent of the workforce. The region was almost wholly reliant on mining, and Welkom’s economy was especially undiversified. The town’s sprawling urban design was also expensive to maintain, leading to a “death spiral,” Lochner Marais, a professor of developmental studies at the University of the Free State, told me.

I first visited Welkom in late 2021. As I drove into the city, Google Maps announced that I had arrived, but around me it was dark. Then my headlights picked out a suburban home, followed by another. The entire neighborhood was without electricity. South Africa is in the midst of an energy crisis and experiences frequent scheduled power outages, but that was not the cause of this blackout. Rather, it was symptomatic of chronic local dysfunction, in a municipality ranked South Africa’s second worst in a 2021 report on financial sustainability.

Welkom is surrounded by enormous flat-topped mine dumps that rise from the plains like mesas. The roads have been devoured by potholes. Several years ago, zama-zamas began breaking open wastewater pipes to process gold ore, which requires large volumes of water. They also attacked sewage plants, extracting gold from the sludge itself. Now untreated sewage flows in the streets. In addition, zama-zamas stripped copper cables from around town and within the mines. Cable theft became so rampant that Welkom experienced power failures several times per week.

As the gold-mining companies scaled back in South Africa, they left behind wasted landscapes and extensive subterranean workings, including railway lines and locomotives, intact winders and cages, and thousands of miles of copper cable. Many companies had devised protocols for withdrawing from depleted mines, but these were seldom followed; likewise, government regulations around mine closures were weakly enforced. “It’s as if they just locked the door — ‘Now we’re done,’ ” a mine security officer said of the companies. Shafts were often sold many times over, the constant changing of hands allowing companies to evade responsibility for rehabilitation. By the early two-thousands, according to authorities, South Africa had a large number of “derelict and ownerless” gold mines across the country, creating opportunities for illegal mining. Mining researchers in South Africa sometimes joke that the story of gold mining runs from AA to ZZ — from multinationals like Anglo American to zama-zamas.