It feels like South Africa is on the verge of another eruption of violent xenophobia. According to security authorities, we barely dodged a repeat of the riots and state sabotage of 2021. However, nefarious elements of society remain, and they’re adding to the pressure cooker we’re all locked in.

Following the grisly and despicable gang rape of eight young women at a gold mine dump in Krugersdorp, Gauteng, according to the mainstream press, South Africa’s omnipresent societal descent can be placed solely on the shoulders of foreigners. Of course, this is convenient.

The issue of illegal mining in South Africa is not a new one and it is a prime example of a cowardly government too concerned with rhetoric than law enforcement. Rhetoric like “addressing poverty, legacies of apartheid, people are hungry,” rioters ensured their need to be heard was clear, healing a nation.

Similar empty words from the government were whispered, sympathetically, when illegal mining was first publicized creating the impression that the poorest of the poor were scraping together a living. From the very beginning the fact that the government ignored this was always going to lead us to where we are today – the hemorrhaging of R7 billion annually due to illegal mining. These criminals are robbing a nation of critical infrastructure construction and maintenance, housing, and health services.

To add fuel to the fire, their ability to operate a smooth criminal syndicate caught the attention of global criminals – who saw an opportunity to further their own cash flows. Illegal mining is now a cog in the global chain of i.e.: arms, diamonds, gold smuggling, and sex trafficking. Future efforts to address the proper closing and sealing of derelict and abandoned mines, more than 6 000 across the country, is now pointless. The skills of illegal miners have evolved to the extent that the digging of incline stopes to access main shafts is more than feasible.

The government in collaboration with the private sector needs to table harsh measures to deter illegal miners from plundering both non-operational and operational mines. They are armed and are often in possession of explosives. Not only are they criminals – but they are also terrorists too. While trespassing on operating mines, they have set numerous ambushes and booby traps for legitimate employees, security personnel, and rival groups of illegal miners.

South Africa’s Witwatersrand goldfields have produced over 30% of all the gold ever mined. But in recent decades, large-scale gold mining has declined precipitously. Between 2012 and 2019 the industry shed 42 000 jobs. In this context, an illegal and unregulated gold mining industry, among the most lucrative and violent on the African continent, has taken root.

In March 2022, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe published the Artisanal and Small-scale Mining Policy. The policy recognizes the potential of artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy. But it reserves the permit system for South Africans. It tasks a National Coordination and Strategic Management Team to “halt” illegal mining. The policy has been criticized for its failure to take public comments into account. It has also been criticized for its fantastical assumption that “platoons of illegal miners will miraculously stop their illegal activities overnight.” Implementing the policy will also require legislative amendments, which may take years to finalize.

Mantashe, as well as the department, must urgently speed up attempts to formalize artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy. The department should properly engage the mining industry and civil society in this process. At the same time, a coordinated transnational effort to break the stranglehold of the criminal syndicates must continue.

Richard Jansen van Vuuren
writes for Mining Review


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