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Lesotho’s ‘fools’ gold’…MNNCIJ digs in

’MAJIRATA LATELA

MOKHOTLONG – It has become a well-known fact Mokhotlong is Lesotho’s richest district in minerals, mainly diamonds and water. But could recent allegations of gold discovery along the Senqu River banks in the district be true?

Well, the village chief and his subjects in Sekoka believe they are settled on a land rich with gold. But for others, the glittering substance found in deep grey soils creating a “gold belt” in Sekoka is brass, not gold.

Situated on coast of the Senqu River, Sekoka is around an hour ragged drive from the Mokhotlong town.

The villagers here are so convinced with the existence of gold on their land such that they have dug a deep hole on the river side, in what could best be described as a quasi-surface type of mining.

For a time exceeding a year now, foreign “geologists” have visited the “mine” and conducted soil tests, but there have not been any developments.

What worries the people of Sekoka most is that the “gold area” forms part of the Senqu River earmarked for construction of Polihali Dam in second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

They fear the gigantic dam is going to erode all the gold elsewhere, especially South Africa where the water is destined.

“Foreigners come in large numbers here; they take the gold and leave us with nothing. They pay peanuts to the village boys who help them with the digging,” Sethabathaba Koti told the MNN Center for Investigative Journalism during a recent visit.

Koti, who is convinced that what he saw at the mine was gold, having worked in the South African gold mines for 36 years, was speaking on behalf of the village chief, ’Matšoanelo Tšita.

“People who speak South African Sesotho and other foreign languages have come in different groups here, some from as far as Limpopo. They claimed to be conducting soil tests, but all they have been doing was to dig the gold and take it away. They pay small incentives to the villagers helping them with the digging,” said Koti.

The Centre learned from several interviews with the villagers that other than being paid by the foreigners for digging, the village boys and men also collected “the gold” themselves and sold it in containers that include match boxes and one-litre bottles canned fruit.

A box of matches filled with “the gold” was generally being sold at M100 whereas the full canned fruit bottle was sold for anything between M5, 000 and M13, 000 depending on the buyer.

Samples of Sekoka’s precious stones

In fact, the Center was made to understand there was a certain exceptional “white man” who bought the bottle at M13, 000, “the rest other buyers refuse to pay us anything beyond M10, 000 per bottle”, said a 24-year old Bitsane Leisa.

Leisa is one of the young men who frequented the mine before it was declared dangerous by the village authorities earlier this year.  He told the Center they used to earn from M50 a day per man “for helping the foreigners by digging the gold”.

Leisa shows some of his findings

But the mine, Koti said, was declared no longer safe to visit following threats that were posed by some of the foreign miners to the villagers.

It appeared tension developed at the mine following the coming of an armed-with-pistols syndicate seized the mine’s operations and threatened ordinary villagers out of the site last year.

“Since then, it has never been safe visiting the mine. We have since organised village men to protect the mine against the smugglers who want to steal the mine away from us. They are outsiders after all,” said Koti.

He added the movement to the mine had since been reduced and kept under strict permission of Chieftainess Tšita, “but the smugglers still visit the mine to still gold on awkward times like at night. We noticed recently of the on-going digging at the mine despite restricted movement. We realised the thieves must be continuing with operations at night”.

Under permission and instruction of Chieftainess Tšita, the Centre’s team was guided by the village young men on the mine tour.

Although upon arrival at the site there were no men in operation in sight, the Center observed the digging within the hole was as having been done a few hours ago.

The impression given to the Centre was that whoever was digging at the time, fled or hid upon noticing the village men approaching from afar.

“All the signs that some people continue to dig here are visible. We can only conclude that the smugglers keep hiding somewhere as we approach,” whispered Leisa.

Inside the hollow mine, it is very dark. The team uses cellphone flashes to light up the area. Due to slimness of the passage deeper into the mine, everyone keeps a straight line in what is labelled “single file” in military jargon.

Inside Sekoka’s ‘mine’

The site is unfriendly for any ordinary humankind and strictly a no-go for the oversized folks. 

Within the passage, the glittering substance keeps shining at every passing light of the cellphone flash. The village men use simple tools to dig the unfamiliar deep grey soil that contains small pieces of “the gold”.

When the collection is enough, the glittering substance is washed of the grey soil in the flowing Senqu waters. The work needs all the patience not to lose a single glittering substance into the water. It is not so easy to fill up a match box, never mind a canned fruit bottle.

For Neo Bere, an old man and one of the village pioneers who developed keen interest in the “gold belt” in Sekoka, the glittering stuff is “no way gold.” As opposed to most villagers, Bere believes in certain terms the substance is, instead, brass.

Sekoka’s longtime miner Neo Bere

 “I have sold this stuff for long now, it’s not gold; it’s brass. I have met with a lot of buyers coming from outside the country. They have been taking the stuff for testing in South Africa and, although some of them never came back, others have returned to confirm it is brass,” Bere said.

A brief desk research by the Center shows brass is a pure metal yellowish in colour. It has a gold-like appearance; hence it is mostly used in decorations. Brass is also used in the making of locks, knobs and bearings, among others, as it provides low friction.

Compared to brass, gold is much more valuable. It does not tarnish or react to most acids. Gold is even more dense than brass.

Bere, who currently has eyesight problem following hospital operation that allegedly went wrong, has appealed to government or potential investors to conduct proper soil tests in Sekoka, “in case we may be losing valuable minerals to South Africa through the coming Polihali Dam”.

At the hype of gold discovery in Sekoka last year, the Mokhotlong District Administrator Serame Linake visited the area to witness the gold himself.

“I also took those glittering stones from Sekoka, which were believed to be gold, to Liqhobong Mine for testing. The response I received from them was that the stones, although glittering like gold, they appeared under no recognised valuable type of minerals,” said Linake.

He was, however, quick to indicate they, as the District Administration office, were convinced there were ample minerals along the Senqu River, especially diamonds, which they feared were going to be eroded by the coming construction of Polihali Dam.

Linake wished the issue of ample minerals in Mokhotlong could be dealt with in utmost urgency by the relevant authorities in government, “so that the communities around can benefit and their standard of living improved. Our district has many minerals but the communities are not benefiting from that. Mokhotlong remains underdeveloped regardless of all the richness in minerals in the country”.

For instance, Linake noted all the mining companies operating in Mokhotlong had their head offices in Maseru.

“This means all the core services rendered by the companies are found outside Mokhotlong, despite the fact that they operate in the district. All the minerals that are found in Mokhotlong get ferried to Maseru leaving just a trace in Mokhotlong,” said the DA.

Meanwhile, according to preliminary test results by the Ministry of Mining’s Senior Geologist Kelebone Letsie, the Sekoka stones appear to be sulphides minerals found in the basalt rock. Letsie said it was a common scenario that people mistake the mineral for gold.

“It is not a new thing in mining history that people mistake sulphides for gold. The mineral is famously known as ‘fools’ gold’. Having gold in mind, most goldfields workers are familiar with sulphides that exist in Wits conglomerates which have also gold mineralisation.

“Wits conglomerates and altered basalts are completely different in nature but one cannot ignore the association of gold and sulphides as they do core exist in other places. It is therefore recommended that further studies be undertaken and the mineral assemblage of this basalt be well understood,” said Letsie.

The Centre could not verify allegations of existence of other valuable minerals in Mokhotlong that include red mercury and platinum.

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