I copy and present this news report from the Washington Post Foreign Service because it is so bizarre and disturbing and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it except shake our heads.

Thousands of disgruntled mineworkers laid down their tools one Wednesday night in March 2005, and in the eight days they were on strike, one of the darkest secrets of South Africa's gold mining industry spilled into the light.

Thin, thirsty men lacking company ID cards began straggling out of the shafts, their eyes blinking from the sting of the sun. They were gold pirates, illegal miners who spend months at a time in conditions so unforgiving that, when one dies of exhaustion or poisonous mine gases, his body is simply left in the shaft with a note listing his name and next of kin.

And though the pirates are notoriously resourceful and violent -- they have been known to roll a grenade fashioned out of mine explosives at those who pursue them -- they are dependent on the help of legitimate miners, who for a cut of the profits smuggle food in and gold out, police officials say.

The strike cut that lifeline, driving 140 men to the surface and into the arms of waiting police.

Estimates vary sharply of the value of the gold that pirates steal each year, but in November the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria research group, calculated the number at $250 million a year. Police here in Welkom, in the heart of South Africa's gold fields region, put the figure even higher.

"They say crime don't pay," said Capt. Neels van der Merwe, the beefy, shaggy-haired head of South Africa's largest precious-metals police task force. "But this crime pays."

More than 1,300 arrests have been made related to gold piracy in the past two years, police officials say. Yet at least several hundred more of the miners remain at large, willing to endure inhuman conditions for earnings 10 times higher than what an average South African earns from legitimate work.

The money is hard to beat in a country where one out of four workers cannot find a job.

The pirates pay bribes of about $200 to security guards and other legitimate employees to go down shafts, then stay underground for months at a time. Without safety equipment, they are vulnerable to lethal -- and potentially explosive -- mine gases. Smoking cigarettes is common, in flagrant violation of mine safety rules.

"They can blow up the whole mine and kill a lot of people," said Michael J. Fryer, an assistant police commissioner who oversees the national police effort against gold piracy, speaking from his office in Pretoria. "I think it's a matter of time before we're going to have something happen down there."

At least as dangerous is mercury, a toxic, silvery liquid that many pirates use to process the gold down to a form that's easily smuggled to the surface.

While still underground, many of the pirates put their mined rocks into a penduka -- a makeshift, hand-cranked tumbler made of a used metal gas tank -- along with iron balls that crush the material to a sand-like consistency.

The material is then mixed with mercury, which bonds with the gold to form a heavy amalgam, allowing most of the surrounding dirt to be washed away. A few minutes under the intense heat of a blowtorch turns the amalgam into yellow, semi-processed gold.

On the black market, police say, a one-pound ball, fitting easily in a man's palm, is worth $6,800.

The risks are worth it, said Samuel Sefuli, 26, a lean, watchful man who said he has worked as a gold pirate because there are so few other jobs available. He said his most recent venture into a mine lasted three months and netted him $11,000 profit.

"Gold is the only way to survive in this country," Sefuli said.

In the shafts, the pirates can buy almost anything, for the right price, smuggled down by legitimate workers. A loaf of bread or a bottle of Coca-Cola goes for $7, and a smuggled hamburger can get more than $100. Many of the transactions are made in stolen gold, though payment with rolls of cash is common as well. One pirate was arrested with nearly $30,000 in cash in his pocket.

The history of the gold industry is inextricable from that of South Africa. The discovery of the world's richest gold reefs in the 1880s drove a mad land rush toward Johannesburg, known as the "City of Gold." The mines' need for cheap, plentiful labor underpinned the racial laws that eventually became apartheid.

Gold pirates gained a foothold in the 1990s, at about the time that crime surged throughout South Africa, which has some of the highest rates of rape and murder in the world. Now the business is run by sophisticated syndicates.

One 41-year-old miner, who said that the gold pirates are so violent that publishing his name would endanger his safety, said mine employees leave behind tools and power up battery-operated lights for the gold pirates. He said legal and illegal miners often work side by side.

"There is no secret there underground," the miner said. "Sometimes they are there with us, and you can't say anything because your life will be in danger."

The stolen gold, some of which is smuggled to the surface in dirt rather than semi-processed metal, also fuels an illicit smelting industry. In a grubby, garbage-strewn township on the outskirts of Welkom, low concrete dormitories house the world's largest illegal smelting operation, according to police officials.

Regular raids by police have done little to control what is a bustling local industry amid severe, entrenched poverty. Residents say the processing and selling of illicit gold is seen as, at worst, a minor infraction.

"It's a crime but not a violent crime," said David Mphailane, 37, a resident. "We don't kill people."

The syndicates that run the industry are unquestionably dangerous and resilient.

A raid on the illegal smelting operation Dec. 7 yielded a few pieces of carpet laden with gold dust, a grocery bag of reddish-brown, gold-bearing dirt, five small bags of marijuana and a single hand-cranked gold-processing machine. Not a single pirate was arrested.

Residents of the township said informants within the police force tipped off smelters the night before the raid, giving them ample time to hide evidence.

"You can go back this afternoon and get the gold dust again," van der Merwe said grimly after the raid. "It will never stop."