Illegal Limpopo chrome mining — digging deep for empty promises

For decades South Africa has been stripped of its minerals, but little has been ploughed back to the people who have lived on these lands for generations.

The government has made many commitments to protect those people living on mineral rich land. This includes stringent rules and regulations — supposedly enforced by the department of mineral resources. Instead, the mining areas and the people living there remain underdeveloped.

In some instances unscrupulous businesspeople take the minerals without mining licences and leave the residents worse off than before they arrived — and the department is wilfully indifferent. One such case is that of the people who live in Limpopo’s Sekhukhune district, beneath which lies a rich chrome belt.

Last week the Mail & Guardian revealed that one of the “investors”, so named by the community, is Johan Niemoller, a former operative with the Civil Co-operation Bureau, the apartheid death squad.

He was a central figure in the assassination of Anton Lubowski, a Namibian anti-apartheid activist and a prominent Swapo member. He is also linked to other questionable activities — dealing in uncut diamonds, recruiting mercenaries and weapons theft from military bases.

Before Niemoller and the other “investors” came, people informally mined the ore dumps abandoned by the mining company when it lost its licence. They say Niemoller arrived in April, making promises of a better life.

He brought in machinery but he never applied for a permit — neither did he fork out the hundreds of millions of rands in investment that is required for a legitimate mining operation.

What Niemoller — and his ilk — did was organise a desperate people to do his bidding and help himself to the fruits of their hard labour, paying them a pittance. He carted off ore worth millions of rands.

He has not responded to M&G questions about his involvement in Sekhukhune.

When the police and government officials finally clamped down on the illegal mining activities, they chased the informal miners from the abandoned chrome mine.

Then 23 trucks owned by a Mozambican-based company were detained during a sting operation near the border, according to a police source. The company was contracted by VR Cargo in Nelspruit — which in turn was contracted by Patrick Lightfoot. Lightfoot is the operations manager for Niemcor Africa, which is owned by Niemoller.

But the real question is: Why did it take the minerals department so long to stop illegal mining in the area?

The M&G has seen two court orders awarded as early as last year to stop illegal mining activities in Sekhukhune. They were awarded to the Bapedi king, KK Sekhukhune.

But neither the department nor the police acted on the court interdicts, despite the department knowing full well which companies have licences to mine in the area.

Only when a company called VDH, which has applied for prospecting rights in the area, went to court to put a stop to the illegal mining did the department act.

Asked why it hadn’t acted sooner, the department told the M&G that its response had not been influenced by the applicant but rather that “it was the right thing to do and the prevailing circumstances were conducive”.

All the “investors” remain in the shadows where the long arm of the law seemingly won’t reach.

Police involved in detaining the trucks seem confused about who is actually handling the case; the very authorities meant to protect people such as the Sekhukhune community often plead ignorance.

Now the only reminder that the area was mined are the gaping holes in the mountainside near the R37 to Burgersfort. That, and a community left poorer than before, with no justice in sight.

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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