Police have uncovered the burned bodies of 20 men "wrapped in white plastic bags" in a gold mining town in South Africa. Five bodies were discovered Monday near a disused mine shaft in Orkney, North West province, about 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg, per the Sunday Times. Another body was found at that location Tuesday, while 14 bodies were discovered at a second location near a rail line, according to police spokesperson Sabata Mokgwabone. All are thought to belong to illegal miners or "zama zamas"—a Zulu phrase meaning "those who try their luck." Mokgwabone said video shared on social media showed a man "pleading for assistance following an apparent smoke inhalation occurrence" at a mine shaft. Local broadcaster SABC News described unconfirmed reports of fatalities following an underground explosion, per Al Jazeera.
Gold-rich South Africa's mining industry employs almost half a million people and supplies about 8% of the total GDP, per Al Jazeera. But a separate informal mining industry operates in obsolete mines under the direction of crime syndicates. "Zama zamas" risk "injuries and deaths from explosives, toxic fume inhalation, collapsing mine shafts, and gang violence," per the Guardian. At least 312 illegal miners are thought to have died between 2012 and 2015, per GroundUp. Autopsies are pending on the bodies, which were said to have been badly decomposed and with severe burns. "This is a disaster, but illegal mining is a criminal activity," Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe said, per OFM News. He called for a specialist law-enforcement unit to deal with "zama zamas," saying they're usually armed. (Read more South Africa stories.)