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Behind the upsurge of illegal mining in SA

Posted by NOSA on May 22, 2017 9:45:00 AM
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During the second week of May, 2017, a gas explosion occurred at the disused Eland mine shaft at Harmony Gold near Welkom. Police have retrieved the bodies of 25 illegal miners, with the surviving 11 arrested upon surfacing aboveground. 

Why is there an increase of this illegal activity? What are the conditions on unused mines that makes it easy for unauthorised people to enter? Have mining companies been derelict in their duties? Let’s take a look.  


 

Abandoned mines are a common feature of the South African landscape

Abandoned mine shafts are the easiest to access, making it difficult for law enforcement and mining corporates to keep track of this growing illicit and dangerous industry. According to 2016 figures by the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, of the 7 500 mines across South Africa, 6 000 are currently abandoned.

 

These mines occur for a number of reasons:

  • A mining company that is liquidated may abandon its mining operations before complying with the statutory obligations for closure.
  • The abandoned mine may be historic, having existed before the currently regulatory regime came into operation.
  • The decision to cease commercial production of a mine is not synonymous with the depletion of minerals. Valuable minerals often remain in mines where commercial production is no longer viable. 

 

Illegal mining is particularly prevalent where there has been a failure to take adequate measures to close a mine. However, illegal mining also occurs in unused mines for which closure measures have been taken. Illegal miners will go to great lengths to circumvent efforts to prevent access to unused mines, such as using dynamite to blast through sealed entrances. Even where companies seek to take responsibility through employing security at unused shafts, there is no guarantee that illegal miners will not bribe their way in.

 

No one chooses to be an illegal miner

But, largely as a result of socio-economic issues, such as unemployment and growing poverty, many individuals have little choice but to become illegal miners – or Zama Zamas – in a desperate bid to put food on the table. And business is booming!

 

It’s illegal but well organised

 

The Chamber of Mines says the practice of illegal mining is am extremely well-organised system. Miners are Oftern heavily armed with ambushes and booby traps against rival groups are a common sight. Because thet are serving organised criminal bosses, the miners taking these risks are not seeing the real value of theor labour. It's a multibillion-dollar transnational business empire with its own financial targes, line managers, security personnel and CEOs, with a well manges five-tier system: 

 

Tier 1: The underground workers, mostly illegal immigrants, who do the physical mining. Many have worked in the mines previously. They use chemical substances to rudimentarily refine the product.

Tier 2: The buyers on the surface around the mines. They also organise the level-one illegal miners and support them with food, protection and equipment.

Tier 3: The global bulk buyers, who are usually entities, which in most cases have permits issued in terms of the Precious Metals Act to trade in precious metals.

Tier 4: Those who distribute nationally and internationally, through front companies or legitimate exporters.

Tier 5: The top international receivers and distributors, usually through international refineries and intermediary companies.

 

The Chamber of Mines also adds that a number of illegal miners often leave a decent-paying job to earn more underground. The Chamber believes illegal mining has an annual value of about R7-billion. With many of the miners having to provide for up to 10 dependants, the promise of sizeable profits lure thousands to their possible death or arrest.

 

Illegal miners are mostly foreigners, with an estimated 70% of all arrested illegal miners being illegal immigrants (mostly from Lesotho). Authorities involved in tracking down and preventing illegal miners from continuing with their activities, believe slack border control and corruption are mostly to blame.

 

Turf wars are also a feature, and are on the rise

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 Department of Mineral Resources (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’.

 

So what can be done?

While the Chamber admits South Africa is still a long way from finding a solution to the growing illegal mining trend, various options have been discussed. Recently, a special investigative task force was launched, bringing mining companies and the South African Police Service (SAPS) together to combat illegal mining. The Chamber is also working on establishing a precious metals finger-printing database. This database will help authorities keep track of precious metal samples across South Africa, as well as identify various problem areas and trends. Additionally, the Chamber has brought in the assistance of various international bodies, including Interpol, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to further their fight against illegal mining. “No single stakeholder can address the challenge of illegal artisanal mining on its own – collaboration is key.”

 

Ideally, mining companies must take responsibility to ensure proper closure and securing of unused mines. There is the possibility of heavier penalties for mining companies that fail secure unused or closed mines. This, however, fails to take into account that the hiring of security and sealing of mine shafts have not always prevented illegal mining. An array of factors reduce the likelihood that current law enforcement efforts will succeed in preventing illegal mining.

 

In the face of high levels of unemployment and ineffective mine closure, illegal mining will, in all probability, continue. It has been suggested that a solution to illegal mining would be to legalise and regulate artisanal mining, allowing illegal miners to obtain permits to carry out their activities. This is the approach taken to what is referred to as artisanal mining in many African countries, including Zimbabwe. It is arguable that regulation of artisanal mining is preferable to fruitless efforts aimed at eradicating the practice, at least as a measure that may break the hold of organised gangs on artisanal mining. 



 

So what can be done?

While the Chamber admits South Africa is still a long way from finding a solution to the growing illegal mining trend, various options have been discussed. Recently, a special investigative task force was launched, bringing mining companies and the South African Police Service (SAPS) together to combat illegal mining. The Chamber is also working on establishing a precious metals finger-printing database. This database will help authorities keep track of precious metal samples across South Africa, as well as identify various problem areas and trends. Additionally, the Chamber has brought in the assistance of various international bodies, including Interpol, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to further their fight against illegal mining. “No single stakeholder can address the challenge of illegal artisanal mining on its own – collaboration is key.”

 

Ideally, mining companies must take responsibility to ensure proper closure and securing of unused mines. There is the possibility of heavier penalties for mining companies that fail secure unused or closed mines. This, however, fails to take into account that the hiring of security and sealing of mine shafts have not always prevented illegal mining. An array of factors reduce the likelihood that current law enforcement efforts will succeed in preventing illegal mining.

 

In the face of high levels of unemployment and ineffective mine closure, illegal mining will, in all probability, continue. It has been suggested that a solution to illegal mining would be to legalise and regulate artisanal mining, allowing illegal miners to obtain permits to carry out their activities. This is the approach taken to what is referred to as artisanal mining in many African countries, including Zimbabwe. It is arguable that regulation of artisanal mining is preferable to fruitless efforts aimed at eradicating the practice, at least as a measure that may break the hold of organised gangs on artisanal mining. 

 

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Sources:

http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=47873:bodies-of-illegal-miners-recovered-from-abandoned-gold-mine&catid=52:Human%20Security&Itemid=114

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/search-continues-for-more-illegal-miners-trapped-at-welkom-mine-20170518  

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Six-things-to-know-about-the-illegal-mining-boom-20140626

http://www.mlia.uct.ac.za/news/illegal-mining-problem-and-possible-solutions-richard-cramer

http://www.ngopulse.org/article/economics-illegal-mining

https://www.thebalance.com/what-can-be-done-to-prevent-mining-accidents-2367337

https://www.businesslive.co.za/rdm/business/2017-03-27-the-truth-about-south-africas-illegal-mining-industry/




 

Topics: News and Opinions, HSE trends, CEO, Mining, Budget, Legislation, Illegal

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