The menace of illegal mining has spread from traditional strongholds of Gauteng and North West into other provinces, which experts have blamed on corruption, politically connected kingpins and the incapacity of law-enforcement agencies.
Illegal miners, also known locally as zama zamas, are increasingly tightening their grip on small Mpumalanga mining towns such as Dientjie, Sabie and Pilgrim’s Rest, a picturesque historic gold-mining town protected as a provincial heritage site.
Of grave concern is the level of violent crime that comes with illegal mining operations, with fears that this will not only kill the province’s vibrant tourism industry, but also pose a danger to communities.
Mpumalanga is known for its abundance of breath-taking tourist attractions like God’s Window, as well as the Three Rondavels of Graskop, the historic mining village of Kaapsehoop Wild Horses, about 25km from Mbombela, and the 240-million-year-old dolomite Sudwala Caves.
In June, four suspected illegal miners died when a fight broke out at the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates in Dientjie and a group of 21 illegal miners were arrested in a sting operation conducted in Dientjie, Pilgrim’s Rest and Sabie days later.
Last week, police pounced on Lesotho national Thabang Ntsibane, 34, for operating an alleged illegal gold-processing lab in Pilgrim’s Rest.
Syndicates capitalising on corruption
“We have gradually seen a lot of these criminal networks or illegal mining syndicates moving into smaller mining towns due to the ease in getting into these abandoned mines and getting the illegal gold,” Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Richard Chelin has lamented.
He said criminal syndicates were capitalising on corruption and the inability of law-enforcement agencies, saying the impact of crime was massive where there is illegal mining operations.
Chelin said illegal mining syndicates were organised and took advantage of the high level of corruption, as well as the lack of will to address the scourge, to facilitate their operations.
“Usually what we have seen with law enforcement is that they target the illegal miners. You arrest 100 and you have done the job, without going up the ladder, getting the key players and targeting them,” he said.
Chelin said the police’s mandate was also limited in addressing illegal mining, and that the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and mining companies needed to work jointly to deal with the scourge.
“These abandoned mines leave a lot of questions like who is responsible for them. It is quite a complicated issue but authorities are struggling to address this issue, and we have seen a rise in illegal mining and associated crime in the past couple of years,” he said.
Doubts on government’s plan
Theodore Petrus, associate professor of anthropology at the University of the Free State, was doubtful that the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy’s plans to establish an artisanal mining sector to curb illegal mining would be effective.
He said government had a bad track record in dealing with other forms of crime, and questioned whether the plan wasn’t just more window dressing.
“I guess time will tell if whether this will actually work… I think it remains to be seen what is going to come from the artisanal mining sector that the department is going to establish. I have my doubts,” Petrus said.
He said as long as corruption is still so rife, he has little faith that anything coming from a government department would bear much fruit.
“There is also the problem of corruption, where there are these corrupt law-enforcement officials who may turn a blind eye. Alternatively, you might have senior members in law enforcement who might be paid off,” Petrus added.
A multi-dimensional challenge
The Minerals Council of SA said it was working with mining companies and had heightened their security measures, working in with police to address illegal mining.
Council spokesperson Allan Seccombe said illegal mining was a multi-dimensional challenge that needed to be addressed from a range of perspectives, with a collective and multi-disciplinary approach.
He said the complexity of illegal mining and the transnational trafficking of illegally mined minerals meant no single stakeholder could address it on its own and that collaboration, both locally and internationally, was key.
“The problem is exacerbated with rising unemployment in SA reaching record-high levels. Law enforcement and intelligence networks have limited resources and it is difficult to secure meaningful prosecutions of those involved in illegal mining, particularly those in the upper levels of the criminal syndicates,” Seccombe said.
He said it was difficult to get to the kingpins as the criminal syndicates that buy illegally mined minerals use front companies or legitimate exporters to sell these minerals.