Illegal mining — or making a living?

By | 2018-10-10T14:31:13+00:00 October 10th, 2018|Mining in Focus|
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According to the Minerals Council South Africa, South Africa’s mining industry loses R7-billion annually to illegal miners, writes Dineo Phoshoko. 

Illegal mining is a growing concern in the industry, not only because of the detrimental impact it has on the mining industry economy, but also because of the socio-economic and safety impacts of the areas where illegal mining activities take place.

Who are illegal miners?

Illegal mining itself is a criminal activity; however, illegal miners are not criminals trying their luck in the mines with the hope of finding gold. More often than not, illegal miners are former miners themselves and are highly experienced in the mining industry. PwC’s SA Mine report released in September 2017 stated that it is not uncommon to find that many arrested illegal miners are ex-employees in the formal mining industry.

Another notable trend with illegal miners is that most of them lose their jobs following mine closures or retrenchments. With the rising cost of living and South Africa’s high and increasing unemployment rate, former mine employees resort to illegal mining as a means to make a living. The intimate knowledge they have of the mine and the experience gained over the years of working at the mine works to their advantage.

In an article for The Con titled “Zama Zamas & The ‘Snake That Breathes Fire’”, Tehillah Niselow details how illegal miners’ equipment was limited, only consisting of battery-operated headlamps, small knee pads, a hammer, and a chisel. With this, illegal miners descended on an abandoned gold mine shaft located in Langlaagte, west of Johannesburg. One of the illegal miners mentioned in the article was a 30-year-old former mine employee. He was employed by a mine company as a locomotive operator. The man, whose identity was kept anonymous, decided to pursue illegal mining after feeling that he was not earning enough money. As an illegal miner, the man managed to make more than four times his salary, which was R4 000 a month at the time.

Because of their activities, illegal miners are considered to be criminals; yet, to their dependants, they are breadwinners. Many use the money they earn to provide for their families. Niselow mentions that one of the illegal miners uses his earnings to pay for his sister’s university fees and take care of his family, which included two children. In his article for Sowetan — “I hate the smell but it’s worth it” — Lindile Sifile described another illegal miner (also anonymous), who used the money he made to pay for his hospitality studies.

Some of the man-made explosives used by illegal miners during their activities

Some of the man-made explosives used by illegal miners during their activities. Image credit: Sibanye-Stillwater

Contributing factors for illegal mining

South Africa’s socio-economic status makes illegal mining a lucrative industry. High and increasing unemployment, poverty, and an economy that is leaving mines with no option but either to close down or retrench employees, are among the driving forces of illegal mining. “Illegal mining is driven by poverty and unemployment —desperate people will take desperate measures in order to put food on the table,” read PwC’s report.

Besides South Africa’s socio-economic challenges, other neighbouring countries also face similar challenges. As a result, citizens from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique migrate to South Africa to seek employment in illegal mining. Similar to South Africa, the foreign nationals are former mine employees and have experience in the mining industry. Statistics show that 70% of arrested illegal miners are undocumented foreign nationals from South Africa’s neighbouring countries.

Mbekezeli Mkhize, a researcher at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Military Studies, conducted a study titled New interventions and sustainable solutions: Reappraising illegal artisanal mining in South Africa. In his study, Mkhize highlights the global demand for gold as another contributing factor to illegal mining. Although illegal mining is often mentioned within the context of South Africa, the problem is not immune to the country alone. Mkhize makes note of this in his study, mentioning that other countries such as Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador also grapple with illegal mining, where a high percentage of gold in these countries is produced illegally.

A makeshift sleeping area underground where illegal miners spend up to a year without coming to surface.

A makeshift sleeping area underground where illegal miners spend up to a year without coming to surface. Image credit: Sibanye-Stillwater

Impact of illegal mining

Illegal mining has the biggest impact on the economy; however, illegal mining activities also have social and environmental impacts. Senior vice-president and head of protection services at Sibanye-Stillwater, Nash Lutchman, gave a media presentation that contextualised illegal mining.

During the presentation, Lutchman mentioned that annually, the mining industry bleeds approximately R20-billion in lost sales, taxes, and royalties. Illegal mining activities include vandalising current mine infrastructure. Repairing the damaged infrastructure can cost millions. During repairs and maintenance, the mine might have to stop mining operations in an affected area. This then affects the overall production output of the mine, which then has a knock-on impact on the costs.

Mining is a dangerous activity; illegal mining is even more dangerous because illegal miners often disregard the health and safety measures required in mining. As a result, accidents are inevitable where illegal miners are involved. When incidents occur at an operating mine, it becomes the mining company’s responsibility to commission Mine Rescue Services to conduct rescue operations. This again can run in thousands of rands in costs as rescue operations can take days.

From a social impact point of view, illegal mining attracts criminal activities in already existing mining communities. Perpetrators involved in the illegal mining syndicate will often linger around mining communities. Lutchman mentioned that illegal mining also encouraged an influx of undocumented immigrants into the country, subsequently infiltrating mining communities.

Crime also increases in illegal mining hotspots. There have been reports of turf wars where rival illegal mining gangs kill each other over mining territory. Earlier this year, seven bodies, believed to be that of illegal miners, were found dumped in an open veld on the east rand in Ekurhuleni. The bodies were close to disused mine shafts in the Benoni area — an area where illegal mining activities often take place.

Health and safety compromises also have an impact not only on illegal miners, but formal mine employees working in the mines. “Illegal miners openly flout personal health and safety to open cement-plugged shafts with explosives on abandoned mines or live underground for extended periods of time, without the necessary protective gear, once they have gained access to operating mines. The zama zamas then pose severe risks to legitimate mine employees, safety protocols, shaft infrastructure and stability, equipment, and ultimately, the business,” notes the Minerals Council South Africa.

The way in which illegal mining activities take place is detrimental to the environment. In his study, Mkhize mentions that illegal mining has serious environmental consequences because of the extraction methods used; however, researchers have not been able to quantify the extent of such environmental consequences. One of these methods involves the use of mercury to separate the gold from the rocks. The way in which illegal miners used the mercury is harmful to the environment. In addition, Lutchman noted the fact that illegal miners used improvised explosives during their activities. The use of such explosives had a negative impact on the environment.

Another environmental impact illegal mining had, was in the way in which water was used and wasted. According to the Minerals Council, there was a severe drought in 2016; however, this was disregarded by illegal miners when they used water excessively to process the gold-bearing material.

Arrests of illegal miners underground at one of Sibanye-Stillwater’s operations

Arrests of illegal miners underground at one of Sibanye-Stillwater’s operations. Image credit: Sibanye-Stillwater

What is being done about illegal mining?

The rise of illegal mining reflects that an urgent and effective solution is needed to solve this ever-increasing problem. Different mining companies have put measures in place to try and get illegal mining under control. Lutchman mentioned that Sibanye-Stillwater increased security by installing access control systems and close-circuit television systems with thermal capabilities. In some mine operations, stop and search procedures were intensified.

The Minerals Council recognises the need to focus on the supply and demand of illegal mining if the industry is to stand a chance in winning this battle. One of the measures is the establishment of the Standing Committee on Security (SCOS) and the National Co-ordinating Strategic Management Team (NCSMT). Together with the Department of Mineral Resources and the South African Police Service (SAPS), the SCOS and the NCSMT are focused on clamping down on the buying market nationally and internationally. The work is done collaboratively with international agencies that include the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), European police, Interpol, and international embassies.

Lutchman mentioned that other measures taken by Sibanye-Stillwater to curb illegal mining included food bans, saturation patrols, and armed guarding. Mine employees were banned from bringing their own food underground. According to Lutchman, the mine supplied the employees with two nutritious meals daily for their shifts.

Measures to deal with illegal mining

Establishing a precious metals fingerprinting database at SAPS forensic laboratories

  • Formal agreement between the Minerals Council, mining companies, and the SAPS.
  • In terms of the Precious Metals Act, samples must be submitted every six months, or when requested.
  • Determine origin of gold/platinum.
  • Highlight problem areas/trends.

Creation of a special investigative task force

  • Includes mining companies and SAPS.
  • Investigates syndicate activity at national and international level.
  • Works with international agencies (such as UNICRI, European police and Interpol) and international refineries.
  • Joint operations are still conducted on an ad hoc basis and when necessary between mine security and the SAPS National Task Team.

Challenges against the battle of illegal mining

Despite all the measures put in place to fight illegal mining, several challenges are making it a monumental task to win the battle. During a joint briefing session by the portfolio committees of police and mineral resources, certain challenges in the fight against illegal mining were highlighted. One of them was corruption within the criminal justice system. This makes it easy for illegal mining culprits to fall through the cracks. In addition, corruption within the formal mining sector also added to the overall problem of corruption.

In the illegal mining sector, it is common practice for illegal miners to bribe their way into operating mines to gain access. Once underground, illegal miners would rely on legitimate mine employees to supply them with food and other supplies while they spend prolonged periods underground. Lutchman mentioned that some Sibanye-Stillwater mine employees (including security guards) had been arrested for colluding with illegal miners underground. The growing demand for illicit gold leads to an increase in people choosing to participate in illegal mining activities.

Inequality levels, poverty, and high unemployment in South Africa and neighbouring countries, make illegal mining a reasonable option to escape the poverty circumstances that many Africans and South Africans are faced with daily. Another major challenge against illegal mining is the number of derelict, abandoned, and ownerless mines. Lutchman highlighted the fact that such mines lacked the necessary security, making it easy for illegal miners to gain unauthorised access and continue to perform their illegal mining activities. According to the Minerals Council, law enforcement agencies were not well equipped to deal with illegal mining. These included police, immigration, border controls, and prosecuting authorities, posing another challenge.

Solutions going forward

One of the debates regarding illegal mining is the possibility of legalising illegal mining where mine companies perhaps collaborate with illegal miners. Lutchman is however doubtful of seeing this happen, unless there is a “well defined set of rules”.

In his study, Mkhize eludes to the need for sustainable employment that will improve the livelihoods of illegal miners. “Creating jobs for low-skilled workers in formal ASM (artisanal and small-scale mining) and rural areas would dissuade illegal activities,” Mkhize writes. He also adds that without empowerment projects to alleviate poverty, the mining sector will achieve minimal progress.

Collaboration from key stakeholders is also essential if there is to be any success in getting a grip on illegal mining. One of the recommendations highlighted by the Minerals Council is a collaborative effort — through the standing committee on security — by mining houses, the DMR, and the SAPS. Since illegal mining is not an exclusive problem to South Africa alone, Mkhize’s paper suggests that perhaps a regional cooperation network might be needed in the sub-Saharan region, as a way of understanding the push and pull factors of illegal mining. “For instance, South African companies and authorities may need to invest in the economies of neighbouring states to provide alternatives to IAM (illegal artisanal mining) and related migration,” Mkhize writes.

Regardless of whether illegal miners are regarded as criminals, or as desperate citizens trying to make ends meet, an urgent and effective solution is required, and success can only be achieved through collaboration from key industry stakeholders. Lutchman highlighted, “Without reform, governance, a strict set of rules, monitoring and control, this activity will neither create entrepreneurs nor stimulate economic growth.”