Around the time most children start their school day, 13-year-old Moses (not his real name) loads soil into a phenduka, a gold refining machine.
He mixes the soil with salt, washing powder, vinegar, and water. He throws heavy metal balls, the size of tennis balls, into the rusty, cylindrical metal machine, and closes it with a rubber lid.
He begins to spin the handle vigorously with his right hand. He does so for 10 minutes before he switches hands. The process takes about 40 minutes.
Moses abandoned primary school to begin his shift on the phenduka machine on the illegal mining fields of Van Ryn, Benoni, on Gauteng’s East Rand.
Next to him are other young boys who appear to be about his age, equally muscular from days of spinning the amaphenduka. Phenduka in Zulu means “changing”, a reference to how the soil particles are “transformed” into gold from which the youngsters earn some money.
Police carry out raids to confiscate the phendukas and arrest illegal gold miners. Parents want their children back in school, rather than working as gold miners.
After the day’s work, the runaway youngsters eat and rest. Fires are lit and tales are told of daily activities. During the day, older men offload unprocessed soil at the site.
Moses says the men they work for always pay them after their gold has been smelted and weighed.
“With Christmas around the corner I know I’m all set. Where else can a 13-year-old boy like myself get such easy money?” he asks.
“School will have to wait. Even my mother complains. But I’m not bothering her for money these days; neither am I stealing from anyone,” he says.
Meanwhile, at home in the Everest informal settlement in Springs, on the East Rand, parents complain and worry about their missing children. Everest is an old compound where illegal gold miners running away from police have set up home.
In the early hours of the morning and in the evenings, vans transport phenduka labourers, including school children, to Van Ryn.
At a recent meeting, parents raised concerns about the “gwejas” who apparently lure their children to work on phendukas.
Some called for the men to be arrested. Some threatened to burn them alive if they did not stop employing school children. Incidents of vigilante burnings have been reported in the area. Parents at the meeting complained that children were using their money to buy the drug nyaope.
“All we want is for our children to come home and go back to school,” said one parent.
A miner in Everest says the boys came to them begging for work.
“They claim that they need the job in order to help their parents at home because there is no food. We do not force them to work,” he said.
According to the law, children aged 15 to 18 may not be employed to do work inappropriate for their age, or work that places them at risk. The National Child Labour Programme of Action formulated in 2003 forbids any form of child labour and child trafficking in South Africa.