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Understanding Illegal Mining in SA

Illegal mining is an ongoing concern across South Africa and the African continent. Largely due to 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.

zama illegal mining

In most cases, these miners risk their lives by going up to 4 kilometres underground and staying there for several days in the hopes of finding a valuable piece of gold or precious stones. 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 7500 mines across South Africa, 6000 are currently abandoned.

The Chamber of Mines also adds that a number of illegal miners often leave a decent-paying jobs 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 dependents, the promise of sizeable profits lure thousands to their possible death or arrest.

It is estimated that, at any given time, approximately 14 000 individuals are involved in illegal mining. They 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.

A well-managed system

The Chamber says the practice of illegal mining is an extremely well-organised system. Miners are often heavily armed and ambushes and booby traps against rival groups are a common sight. “Because they are serving organised criminal bosses, the miners taking these risks are not seeing the real value of their labour,” the report states. “The illegal mining market is a well-managed 5-tier system.”

The 5 Tiers

(According to the Chamber of Mines)

TIER 1: The underground workers, mostly illegal immigrants, 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 Way Forward

While the Chamber admits South Africa is still a long way from finding a solution to the growing illegal mining trend, various options are being discussed. Recently, a special investigative task force was launched, bringing mining companies and the South African Police Service 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. The Chamber has also 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.”

Source: Chamber of Mines of SA