The Tie That Binds: Police Brutality, Lesotho’s Famo Music Gangs, and Illegal Mining in South Africa

The small landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho has in recent years struggled with a resurgence of violence linked to ‘music gangs’ and illegal miners as well as violence enacted upon the rural population by an ever-paranoid security sector.

Guns and Paranoia in Lesotho:

Bordering South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal Province to the east and the Province of the Free State to the North, Lesotho’s porous borders allow for the relatively free-flow of peoples between the two nations, and with the free-flow of peoples, comes the free-flow of weapons.

In 2022, Lesotho was ranked sixth in the world for homicide, behind El Salvador, Honduras, and Venezuela. Then, in 2023, an indefinite curfew was imposed following the murder of a prominent radio journalist in the nation’s capital.  

As a result, authorities have attempted to crack down on the proliferation of arms in the country, oftentimes through the use of intimidation and beatings, particularly of the rural population. 

However, with WorldBank data projections estimating that around 32.6% of the population lives below the international poverty line ($2.15/person/day) in 2024, Lesotho’s working age men are increasingly looking to earn their living in South Africa’s mines. 

In the early hours of March 27th, soldiers of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) conducted a raid, termed ‘Deuteronomy 17’, on villages in Mokhotleng District’s Khubelu area. The raid uncovered six illegal guns and around 100 rounds of ammunition, including 23 Galil rifle rounds (5.56x45mm NATO & 7.62x51mm NATO)

Local press reported villagers were taken by the soldiers to the house of their Chief, where the men and women were separated. The women were then further separated, with the elderly women forced to wail, and the young women forced to run around while the soldiers took the men to an adjacent hut where they were allegedly severely beaten.  

The villagers claim the soldiers pressed them to hand over any arms they may have and to identify illegal miners in the village. 

Again, on the 8th of April, soldiers from Lesotho’s Special Operations Unit (SOU) descended upon Ha-Rammeleke Village in Khubelu’s Mokhotlong District, beating the village’s men with sticks and whips during their search for illegal arms. 

Locals claim the two raids, which occurred less than a month apart, came as a result of a series of murders carried out by Famo music gangs. 

“There were reports everywhere, even on the radios, that things were out of hand in Khubelu,” said Army Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Sakeng Lekola. 

Illegal Mining and Famo Music Gangs?:

Famo music, sung by speakers of Sesotho, originated in the 1920s in South African mines after migrant workers from Lesotho began singing hymn-like songs to pass the time. The 1980s brought the introduction of the accordion and bass to Famo music, which boosted its popularity and created the first Famo ‘stars’ in Lesotho.

Two Famo bands from the nations south– The Terene, formerly led by Rethabile Makete and the Seakhi, led by Bereng ‘Lekase’ Majoro and Lehlohonolo ‘Mahlanya’ Maketsi, have used diss-track type lyrics to drive violence along political and factional lines. 

Beginning in the early 2000s, the use of diss-track type lyrics among rival Famo groups have resulted in hundreds of murders. 

Famo promoter Sebonomoea Ramainoane, while speaking to the BBC claimed, “They come to a house looking for you – and you are not there. And they kill the wife, they kill the children, eliminate everybody in the family. Villages and villages are orphanages, because of Famo music.”

Members of Terene and Seakhi, the largest and most violent of the Famo groups have, like their music’s founders, left Lesotho in favor of the thousands of miles of abandoned mining tunnels that litter the South African landscape. 

Known locally as ‘Zama-Zamas’ – an IsiZulu word loosely translating to ‘take a chance’, Zama-Zamas descend down disused and derelict mining shafts in search of gold and chrome ore to make a living. 

Oftentimes they resurface after months or years, with gray skin and tuberculosis. Other times they are shot dead by rival Zama-Zamas. In the Famo context, the Terene, who don yellow traditional blankets, and the Seakhi, in their red and black traditional wear, control different mines in different regions of South Africa. 

Pictured: Zama-Zamas from the ‘Terene’ Famo Gang brandish assault weapons

The gold retrieved from these disused mine shafts is not often commercially viable but is quality enough for the Zama-Zama to make a sustainable living off. Additionally, the risk in accessing untapped gold is high, with incidents of Zama-Zamas being buried alive a semi-regular occurrence. 

Famo gang Zama-Zamas as well as non-affiliated Zama-Zamas vie for control of the most lucrative mines in South Africa, often leading to violent disputes. In September 2022, the mutilated bodies of seven Zama-Zamas were found along the N1 highway in Maraisburg, with another three bodies with gunshot wounds found the following day. A zama-zama affiliated with the Terene spoke to local press and claimed the men were attacked by a group of 100 Seakhi members over their use of abandoned mines in the area. 

In South Africa, Zama-Zama’s conduct their own security patrols with weapons bought illegally or stolen from police weapon stores in Lesotho. In 2021, 75 firearms from Lesotho’s Mafeteng Police Station were sold by three officers to Famo gang members. Again, in August 2023, 23 pistols disappeared from the premises of Lesotho’s Robbery and Car Theft Squad (RCTS). 

The Organized Crime Index claims that, “although Lesotho is not a major route for arms trafficking in the region, illegal guns still find their way out of the country and are used by illegal mining groups in South Africa. Criminal organizations in Lesotho smuggle small quantities of arms for various crimes such as robberies, hijackings, stock theft, and contract killings, as well as for territorial battles over the control of illegal mining sites in South Africa…Despite seizures of illegal firearms, corruption within the police ranks allows confiscated arms to be sold to Famo gangs. The Lesotho military is also a source of weapons to illegal miners. The increased availability of firearms in South Africa may potentially lead to more flows into Lesotho.” 

So, What Now?:

The methods used by Lesotho’s security services to uncover illegal arms is likely playing into the hands of Famo gangs and arms traffickers. The intimidation of the populace is in any scenario counter-productive, particularly for villager’s who may have been inclined to speak to police before receiving beatings. 

Additionally, the South African police’s response to Zama-Zamas further serves to alienate them from society, making them less likely to embark on the transition to legal work.  

In 2023, South African Minister of Police Bheki Cele, threatened to bury alive Zama-Zamas operating in Riverlea near Johannesburg, if they did not surface. 

We are not going to be delaying this issue of closing those holes because there are people that are illegally there, so they must find their way out,” said Cele. 

Zama-Zamas, affiliated to Famo gangs or not, have made use of South Africa’s disused mines for decades, and the profits that are able to be made out of these mines are likely to continue to entice young impoverished men. 

Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger is a Political Science Graduate from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Currently working as an Editor for The ModernInsurgent and writing for Atlas News, her interests include conflict politics, history, yoga and meditation.

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