Illegal mining in South Africa and its impact

He is a thin, quiet 23-year old. He’s dressed in an old white t-shirt and khaki shorts. Normal in every sense of the word. But to survive, he’s taken on another identity – lives another life. It’s a life that takes him deep into the hot bowels of the earth and leaves his skin covered in sweat and dust.

It’s dangerous, illegal work, wandering around the labyrinth of tunnels of mines closed decades ago, in search of the glittering gold. Donning nondescript overalls and a flickering headlamp, he will risk arrest by police, ambushes and vicious gang fights, and, worse still, being crushed by thousands of tonnes of earth. This is his life in illegal mining.

And in the area around Johannesburg, there’s about 6000 abandoned or exhausted mines attracting hundreds of unemployed people, local and foreign, with the promise of work. Hoping to strike it lucky and pick up any gold left in these abandoned deposits, these workers often spend weeks underground in atrocious conditions. And it often catches up to them, with plenty of reported deaths.

According to the Department of Mineral Resources, South Africa is at a tipping point and risks the situation getting out of control. It’s been suggested that around 14 000 illegal miners spend their time underground illicitly searching for gold. And for the world’s fifth largest exporter of gold, that’s a real problem.

And that’s not the most alarming part. Illegal mining has given rise to crime syndicates and gangs who have out and out turf wars over the shutdown shafts.

What then are some of the causes of this illegal activity?

Money and greed obviously play a vital role right the way through. From the lowliest worker just looking to feed his family, to the kingpin, taking a hefty portion of the pie at the top of the syndicate pile.

Unemployment and the influx of foreign nationals. The slump in mining in the country over the last decade has led to an estimated 600 000 people out of work. These people likely make up the majority of the workers mining abandoned shafts illegally. Having worked on mines previously, they’re most likely to know what they’re doing or to have been trained in working mining equipment. They’re therefore a logical choice for syndicates to approach, intimidate and blackmail into this dangerous work.

Foreign nationals from as far as Nigeria are also easy prey. With very little legal documentation, the promise of a ‘stable income’ is often too good to ignore.

The grey area of the judicial system doesn’t exactly shout justice. Although several arrests have been made over the years, the cases are often long, drawn-out affairs and eventually end up thrown out for lack of evidence. The overall conviction rate for these cases is extremely low so it’s a case of the punishment often not fitting the crime.

So how does illegal mining impact South Africa as a whole? Some of the major impacts are felt countrywide and include:

A severe cost of taxpayers. Forget Zuma and Nkandla for a second. While it’s difficult to determine the exact extent of damage that illegal mining has on the economy, it’s estimated that about R6 billion is lost each year. And it falls onto taxpayers to make that money back, an all but impossible task.

Health and safety hazards that include damages to infrastructure. Illegal mining often spills over into the legal sector as well, with criminals stretching their sphere of influence, intimidating and blackmailing legal miners. Armed gangs are commonplace. Fights, murders and petty crime are rife in the grey area mines that have been abandoned. Not to mention the safety concerns for those actually doing the illegal mining. Shafts collapse regularly and fires underground are an all too common occurrence. Risking death or serious injury is not a matter of if, but when for these people.

Economic loss: This includes the loss of tax revenue and the loss of income as a result of illegal buying and selling of the mined resources. Equipment and fuel is often stolen and smuggled to where it’s needed.

The impact on the environment is also brutal. Mining within legal boundaries and protocol already has major impacts on the environment, but the minute you remove these legal requirements, things can become so much worse. Collapsed shafts regularly lead to sinkholes and soil erosion on massive scale can completely devastate the land.

What can be done to combat illegal mining? Responsible mining within the realms of the law is obviously the prefered answer. In a perfect world, large corporates would get the right mining finances, including legal mining equipment finance, use the right governmental channels and treat their mining employees well. And to a certain extent, companies like Anglo-Gold do so.

Security measures can also be increased in and around abandoned sites. A security task force can be set up to do regular patrols of the mines to make sure they’re empty and safe. Not only will this combat illicit mining, but it’ll create jobs and skills training.

Ultimately the factors that lead to illegal mining are a little more ingrained in our country’s past than a simple solution would hope for. The corrupt culture that purveys South Africa needs to be rooted out and addressed. Only then will we begin to see solutions and campaigns actually begin to work, but change is possible.