By Johan Böning
He is just an ordinary skinny, soft-spoken 23-year-old wearing a shirt and khaki pants, but he’s had to take on another life just to make ends meet – digging for gold deep down in the bowels of the earth.
It is dangerous and illegal work, searching for gold while he wanders through the labyrinth of mine tunnels closed years ago. Donning overalls and a headlamp, he will risk cave-ins, ambushes and conflicts with gangs, and getting arrested by the police. This is the serious crime of illegal mining!
The land around South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg – known in Zulu as eGoli, or the City of Gold – is dotted with abandoned mine shafts which attract hundreds of unemployed people, locals as well as migrants from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
More than 80 illegal miners died at a Harmony gold mine in 2009 following an underground fire. In March 2012, at least 20 men were buried alive after a rock fall in a closed gold mine in Gauteng.
According to the Department of Mineral Resources, South Africa is fast losing control of illegal mining in shut-down shafts, as an estimated 14 000 people are currently involved in this activity and the number is growing daily.
The inevitable involvement of crime syndicates has led to the emergence of criminal gangs, some heavily armed, who work illegally in these mines and steal our beloved country’s minerals.
Impact of illegal mining
Illegal mining has a serious impact on South Africa and the mining industry:
- Cost to taxpayers. The cost of illegal mining in South Africa is difficult to determine, but is estimated to be about R6 billion ($550 million) a year.
- Health and safety risks. Damage to infrastructure poses a serious risk, while legal miners’ safety is threatened by illegal gangs that are usually armed, sometimes with AK47s, according to reports. Also of concern is that some legal miners sell or give their clock cards to illegal miners to gain access to mines, and there are even instances where legal miners provide food, equipment and mine property to illegal miners. Illegal mining can cause underground fires and fall of ground incidents, resulting in loss of life and threatening mine employees, mining communities and the illegal miners themselves.
- Economic losses. This includes loss of tax revenue and loss of income for legal miners, as the illegal miners in effect compete with legal mining operations. Theft of machinery, diesel, tyres and other equipment is also a reality. The State and the mining sector lose approximately R7 billion per annum in revenue as a result of smuggling. In 2007, the loss in gold production due to stolen gold was estimated to be R5,6 billion, and illegal miners also steal thousands of litres of water to run these illegal mining activities.
- Prostitution. According to reports, women go underground to work as prostitutes for illegal miners. This poses obvious health and safety threats.
- Environmental impact. Irresponsible mining practices cause irreparable harm to the environment and the ecology.
- Loss of life due to faction fighting between gangs, fighting amongst illegal miners and fatal accidents such as falls of ground.
- Human trafficking is also a reality.
- Proceeds from illegal mining are used to finance other crimes.
Several challenges have been identified, including the following:
- Attacks on the SAPS, the Department of Mineral Resources and mine officials, including security personnel
- Continuous reopening of sealed holes by illegal miners
- Increase in crime (murder and theft, including theft of water, copper cables, steel, diesel and tyres)
- Most of the criminals involved are illegal immigrants from Mozambique, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
The following achievements have been recorded in Gauteng:
- The Gauteng Illegal Mining Forum was established, where information is shared and coordinated, feedback from stakeholders is obtained and challenges are discussed.
- Several major crime kingpins have been arrested and many more have been identified and are under investigation.
- In one organised crime syndicate, 17 accused illegal miners were found guilty of 106 of the 113 charges brought against them.
- Several old open shafts and holes have been sealed.
- Improved access control at mines is receiving ongoing priority.
- Continuous efforts are made to ensure that security personnel undergo a proper vetting procedure, to enhance personal security.
- Disruption operations, raids and arrests are taking place on an ongoing basis.
- Mineworkers (even on more senior levels) who were involved in criminal activities and were part of syndicates have been arrested.
The way forward
As a way forward the focus will be on the following:
- The Gauteng Illegal Mining Forum will continue to implement measures to eradicate illegal mining activities.
- The rehabilitation and sealing of old shafts and holes will continue.
- Support to law enforcement agencies will be increased.
- The identification of small refineries will continue, which includes the investigation and validation of licences.
- Continuous efforts will be made to promote legitimate mining.
- The removal of exposed minerals will receive attention.
- Legislation will be reviewed.
- The involvement of the UN agencies specialising in global organised crime will continue.
- The culture of corruption will be attended to.
- Training interventions at border control security points will continue.
- Workshops for prosecutors and members of the SAPS will be presented.
- Access control and security at mines will be further improved.
- The rehabilitation of mines will continue and areas where illegal mining sites were operated will be rehabilitated and used for other purposes.
- Efforts to identify organised crime bosses and syndicates will continue.
- Effective methods for preventing access to underground areas will be reviewed and implemented.
- Research will continue, as will efforts to identify any new modus operandi followed by illegal miners.
- In view of the safety risks associated with illegal mining it is recommended that the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) should evaluate the possibility of conducting research through the Safety In Mines Research Advisory Committee (SIMRAC).
Sources: Cecilia Jamasmie Mining.co, “Illegal mining expands in South Africa at Sky-high rates: report”; Illegal Mining Forum Reports and information from the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) and several stakeholders such as