LERIBE — Thetso Lekaota of Leribe, about 80km north of Maseru, is set and ready to go.
There is a steely determination etched on his face as he talks about his impending trip to “the mines”.
Lekaota says he is aware that illegal Basotho miners perished at Welkom last May.
But he has made up his mind.
He is determined to cross over into South Africa and join his peers.
Fear of death, it seems, is not enough to dissuade Lekaota from undertaking the trip.
Lekaota is keeping his plans to his chest.
He refuses to disclose the exact mine where he is going, only saying “somewhere in the Free State”.
In this business, as he has come to appreciate, it is fatal to talk too much.
“I am going to work. Nothing will stop me,” Lekaota says.
For Lekaota and thousands of other Basotho recruited to work in the mines, this represents an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I have seen my brothers go the mines in South Africa and come back home with a fortune,” Lekaota says.
Lekaota says he is not worried that he could die in the mines and suffer the same fate as that of the 89 people who perished at Eland Shaft in Welkom in May.
Those who died in May perished because “it was their unlucky day”.
“Everything that happened in May was predetermined and we cannot run away from what has been set before us,” he says.
“The men were at a wrong place at the wrong time. They were just unlucky to be underground when danger came.
“We all felt the pain.
“However, we cannot stay and grieve for the rest of our lives.
“We have families to take care of. Life must go on.”
He says even his wife had tried to discourage him from making the trip to the mines.
She wept uncontrollably in a bid to stop him from going, he recalls.
But even his wife’s tears could not halt his plans to trek to the mines.
She will have to dust herself up and approve his plans, Lekaota says.
“I know everybody is scared that we will also burn to death,” Lekaota says.
“My wife has been crying and begging me not to go but I have no choice.
“I need money to give them a decent standard of living.”
Lekaota says he has no choice but to forge ahead with his plans.
He says he is fully cognisant of the dangers.
He says he is fully aware that his life could be snuffed out in a flash like what befell his colleagues last May.
“We are all going to die one day anyway,” Lekaota says, shrugging off his wife’s protests.
“If I get scared and stay at home with my wife and kids, I will die of hunger.
“If I find work as a taxi driver, I might be involved in an accident and die.
“Death lurks everywhere, even in your house.”
He says all his life he has known only abject poverty.
“All my life I have been trying to get a steady job but without success,” Lekaota says.
“The available work would just be for a short time, without a good pay.”
Relief agencies say with no prospects of ever securing a decent job youths risk all in pursuit of the riches promised by the South African mines.
Illegal miners who have worked in South Africa say the rewards are great.
No work beats illegal mining in terms of big earnings, they say.
Lekoata says he has seen scores of brothers and relatives rise from the ashes of poverty to relative prosperity.
It is this lure of immediate riches that has been the biggest pull-factor, Lekoata says.
“There is a lot of money there,” he says.
“Those men get a lot of money in just weeks.
“If I go there and work like real men do, I will beat poverty. I will be a man like they are.”
Tieho Maoma, a colleague of Lekaota, says there is just “no turning back”.
Maoma also concedes that illegal mining is a risky business.
Still he says he has no choice.
“We are starving,” Maoma says.
“No one can just come and feed you and your family. This is why we take the risks.”
Maoma, who is 27, says he has never been formally employed.
He says he relies on his parents to provide for him, something he says is an embarrassment to him.
He also cannot get a wife as he has no means to support her.
Maoma says it was his dream to get married one day and start a family.
But that will remain a pipe dream as long as he does not have a steady income, he says.
“I need money so that I can start a family,” Maoma says.
“I cannot depend on my parents for the rest of my life.
“I should take the risk. Life is all about taking risks.”
Behind all this bravado Maoma reveals that he is after all human.
He says he fears about what lies ahead.
“Honestly I am a bit scared,” Maoma says.
“I was told that working underground is not child’s play.
“Even the secured shafts are still dangerous.
“However I am determined to go.”
Maoma says the tragedy at Welkom last May had not stopped illegal miners from leaving Leribe to go to South Africa.
He says illegal miners had changed their modus operandi, preferring to go in small groups to avoid being detected at Lesotho’s border.
Those without valid travel documents cross at illegal exit points, Maoma says.
He says the biggest push factor is poverty.
“Everyone,” he says as a matter of fact, “is going to the Free State to work in the abandoned shafts. This is the only place where we can secure jobs.”
An illegal miner at Welkom who only identified himself as Nthona Sekese “wrote” a touching letter to Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili after the Welkom disaster.
Sekese said their lives had dramatically improved since they began working in the disused mines.
“Money from this business, no matter what people may say about it, has helped many families in Lesotho,” Sekese wrote to Mosisili.
“I have been able to send my children to school. Some of my colleagues here have started small businesses in the hope that one day they will stop this dangerous business.”
Sekese said he was eager to come back home but would not do so due to the rampant unemployment in Lesotho.
“I want to stay home but there are no jobs. Opportunities are very scarce,” he said.
“Those who condemn us have never felt what it is like to go to bed on an empty stomach.
“They don’t know the pain of watching your children go for days without food.”
The South African government says it has tightened security at Harmony Gold to stop illegal mining operations.
Mines Minister Susan Shabangu says illegal miners must face the full force of the law.
Reports from Welkom suggest however that illegal mining is still continuing with a total of 137 people having been arrested since May.
Lesotho’s consul in Welkom, Sethunya Koqo, said recently that it was a shame that some Basotho were willing to risk life and limb in search of riches.
“We are all aware that jobs are scarce (in Lesotho) but for one to risk their lives like this, is really uncalled for,” Koqo said.
For Lekaota and hundreds of other illegal miners operating under the bowls of “Mother Earth” in Welkom such warnings sound hollow.