Cape Town – As police open a murder investigation into the deaths of at least 10 illegal miners at a gold mine in Benoni, News24 looks at the facts behind the illegal mining boom.
1. You can’t just start digging for gold
You need a licence to start mining. The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) defines illegal mining as “conducting mining activities without a mining right”. This ‘right’ depends on how long you expect to be digging and the size of the mine.
But South Africa is also one of the only countries in the world where it is illegal to be in possession of unwrought precious metal without the right authorisation.
2. Not all illegal miners are the equal
About 70% of all arrested illegal miners are illegal immigrants, according to the Chamber of Mines. The DMR said that most of these are from Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique.
While the zama zamas (illegal miners) will risk going deep into both abandoned and operational mines, other ‘artisanal’ miners scour deserted or unwanted sites for minerals on the surface.
The most popular commodities in illegal mining are gold, diamonds, sand and aggregates, according to the DMR.
Artisanal miners are usually men but often children. According to the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), which is based in Canada, approximately 16% of the world’s diamonds are produced by artisanal miners. There are 1.5 million of them in Africa and South America, working in 18 different countries – most dig by hand for illegal gangs.
Meanwhile, some legal mine workers are said to take part in illegal activity during their leave periods too. Indeed, Sibanye Gold’s chief executive officer Neal Froneman, said earlier this year that the company spends R75m a year trying to contain the problem.
Speaking at Sibanye’s annual general meeting in February he said: “Every mine has got a problem. It’s not just outside but our own employees as well. It is a real issue that is totally out of control”.
3. Illegal mining is ‘very well organised’
Illegal mining is usually spearheaded by illegal mining syndicates. These syndicates are professionally run and very well organised, according to the Chamber of Mines.
The zama zamas will bribe legal miners, shift managers and security guards for the syndicates, which are run by criminal kingpins.
To gain entry into the mines, the zama zamas will either bribe or sneak their way into an existing mine or blast open shaft entries which have been sealed with concrete.
Together mining groups and the DMR have sealed some 180 old mine entrances in the last year or so, the Chamber of Mines said.
4. It’s extremely dangerous
Former police minister Nathi Mthethwa said at the Free State Mine Crime Combating Forum in April that illegal mining contributes to the murder rate and as well as causing deaths underground.
Zama zamas are often heavily armed, have explosives, and set booby traps for employees, security and rival groups of illegal miners, according to the Chamber of Mines.
The bodies found in Benoni are thought to have been shot by a rival gang, according to reports from the local community.
But gang warfare is not the only risk. The health and safety of miners is put at risk by using stolen equipment – such as rock drills – along with explosives. They can be exposed to toxic gases and falling rocks.
“The truth is that we do not know of many of the victims because they are buried underground, leaving their families to wonder forever what happened to them,” Mthethwa said.
Earlier this year a group of 20, mainly Zimbabweans, were poisoned by carbon monoxide in a mine near Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg.
5. Turf wars are on the rise
News24 understands that by closing holes and apprehending suspects, the government and the mining sector has successfully narrowed the number of places available for illegal miners to work in.
However, this has led to turf wars as different illegal syndicates fight for the space.
Certainly, the Chamber of Mines has noted an “increasing level of violence and intimidation by illegal miners”.
The DMR said the main reason that illegal mining has risen, in the West Rand in particular, was “due to some of the mines being ownerless and derelict and the gold bearing material outcropping to surface”.
6. There’s a reason the problem is getting worse
According to Dorothee Gizenga, executive director of the DDI, if illegal mining is on the rise “it reflects the economy of the country”.
The Chamber of Mines puts the growth in illegal mining down to a slightly wider problem, adding that it “could be attributed to the combination of a difficult socio-economic climate and limited resources at the disposal of law enforcement agencies”.
People are poor, desperate and unemployed – and policing is problematic. As Froneman pointed out: “the police don’t have the capacity to go underground”.
But Livhuwani Mammburu, acting national spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers, said that not enough was being done to protect the people lured into illegal mining by “big guns”.
He said: “In this regards NUM calls on government to intensify efforts to track down the kingpins of illegal mining operations in order to protect the poor from falling prey to this dangerous cycle.”
Gizenga also pointed out that more could be done to formalise artisanal mining in the areas that have been deemed not worth digging by the industry. “To dig anything at 40 feet or higher you don’t need to have big machinery – it’s a waste of money for the industry so it’s left to the individual,” she said.
With this class of illegal miners, the government could support them by formalising areas not used by the industry, and providing support such as safety advice.
The problem, said Gizenga, is that “governments see it as a headache, and want quick solutions. The reality is that artisanal mining is here to stay – if the government doesn’t have anything other to offer people in the way of employment. It’s a development issue which requires a lot of development support and infrastructure,” she said.
The DMR said it addresses the problem through monthly meetings with the Illegal Mining Stakeholder Forums in Mpumalanga, Free State and Gauteng. It said the stakeholders engage in a “weekly” battle to curb illegal mining by demolishing illegal equipment, making arrests, deporting immigrants, sealing shafts and cutting off water supplies.