The case for giving zama-zamas mining rights

In August, informal miners marched on the department of mineral resources (DMR) in Pretoria to demand the legalisation of small-scale mining and a moratorium on the what’s been described as the persecution of illegal miners. Legalising artisanal mining could make the sector safer and could help boost the economy. The Daily Vox team explains how.

In South Africa, small-scale or artisanal mining is unregulated. It involves people with pickaxes and shovels digging for precious metals in unused or abandoned mines shafts or open land, without government permission or oversight.

It’s dangerous work done by people who live on the poverty line, and are desperate to provide for their families.

Many of the illegal miners, known as zama-zamas, lose their lives underground, mining in open mine shafts or without proper equipment. Earlier this year, 40 artisanal miners died at the Eland Shaft Mine in Free State after a gas explosion in the mine. Many die when shafts collapse or after being trapped underground by rock falls. Because their work takes place in secrecy, it is difficult to stage rescue missions. In most cases, when rescues do occur, illegal miners are arrested by police.

Unlike Ghana or Peru, where small-scale miners are not prohibited from working the land, South Africa’s zama-zamas operate outside of the law. Here, small-scale mining is expressly illegal. Zama-zamas do not hold any formal mining rights granted by the DMR, they carry out their activities by trespassing on private land and do not pay taxes on their income – and they can be arrested for this.


To get a permit from the DMR, small-scale miners must comply with government requirements, like providing environmental assessments and feasibility studies on the land they want to mine. But the formal process for gaining these rights is expensive and onerous.

Pontsho Ledwaba, a researcher at the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry at Wits University, says that conversations about changing mining legislation to allow for artisanal and small-scale mining invariably come down to questions of affordability.

“The discussion around legislation is essentially about coming up with a licence for the miners that they can afford because they cannot meet the financial requirements at the moment to get the license,” she said.

Ledwaba says there’s a “continuum” of zama-zama mining and believes a one size fits all approach for licensing small-scale miners wouldn’t be appropriate. While some zama-zamas operate in abandoned shafts, others work on the surface “We need to have those activities defined out there so that we can say which one we are decriminalising,” she said.

Kgothatso Nhlengetwa, a mining geology researcher specialising in artisanal mining, says the bureaucratic process is another hurdle for those who want to get permits. A lot of small-scale miners work without permits and Nhlengetwa says the reason is access. Even starting the process of getting permits from the DMR can be difficult, she says.

“The problem is with access, of actually being able to start the process, actually getting mineral rights from the DMR office. Also what most people don’t know is that to get a mining permit, you need an environmental management plan. These have huge costs especially for a small-scale miner.”

Nhlengetwa says that if small-scale miners could be given better skills and easier ways to obtain permits, a new breed of small-scale miners who would operate on a legal basis could perhaps be created.

The absence of an overseeing body makes small-scale mining more dangerous than it ought to be. Violent fights sometimes break out between different groups fighting for the same piece of mining land. The absence of the law is further compounded by corruption, as miners pay police off to turn a blind eye to their activities.

At the same time, she says, there’s also a criminal element to zama-zama mining. Not all informal mining is small-scale or artisanal. International criminal cartels are known to run complex operations in the industry, which sees precious metals and diamonds worth an estimated R7 billion smuggled out of the country annually.

Zama-zamas working in these large operations can make lucrative earnings but they are often just the bottom rung of a much more complex operation. A 2014 report from the Chamber of Mines found that “often the proceeds are used to fund other syndicated criminal activity, such as gun smuggling, human trafficking and human smuggling, or drugs.”

Although the Chamber of Mines has some estimates based on information from mine security and police, there are no firm statistics on the number of zama-zamas engaged, how much they produce, and how much revenue they create for themselves.

The World Bank recently launched a programme to collect better data on artisanal and small-scale mining to properly assess the impact of the sector on the economies of different countries.

Last year, the International Council for Mining and Metals called for laws to be amended to allow for small-scale mining permits. It also called on mining firms to invest in the communities involved in mining by providing micro-finance and improving the safety culture.

And at a recent roundtable, the Gauteng MEC for community development Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane warned that the artisanal mining sector could cripple the economy and that its lack of legislation is the reason for the growing problem. Despite the dangers, it’s clear that as long as there is high inequality and poverty in our country, people will turn to artisanal mining to provide for their families. – The Daily Vox

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Fatima Moosa
Guest Author

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