Thousands of illegal diamond diggers will on Thursday be granted a mining permit by the department of mineral resources as part of a plan to formalise the trade which is draining the industry, according to Deputy Mining Minister Godfrey Oliphant.
After years of illegally extracting diamond fragments from a mining site owned by the Kimberley Ekapa Mining Joint Venture, the Kimberley Artisanal Mineworkers will finally be recognised as a legal mining cooperative.
“This is a major milestone for both the mining group and the miners who for a long time have been seen as illegal miners,” said Oliphant.
“This came after lengthy consultations between all the parties, including the provincial government of the Northern Cape,” Oliphant told Fin24.
Oliphant estimates that illegal mining in the gold sector alone costs companies over R70-billion a year.
Ekapa Mining has made available about 400 hectares of land to the group, where they have dug deep furrows and holes in search for diamonds, using makeshift tools.
Oliphant hailed the partnership as a “historic achievement for the community”.
“This is just one way of dealing with the scourge of zama-zamas; we are saying by issuing them with permits, we are giving them a legal platform to better themselves.”
He stressed that the department would not grant permits to underground illegal miners who damage the structures of old shafts and compromise safety.
It will be the second permit to be issued by the department, in what is described as an attempt to root out rampant illegal activity around the country.
Armies of illegal miners have invaded disused shafts across the country, which sometimes leads to deadly underground incidents and clashes with the police.
Oliphant said dire economic factors such as unemployment are some of the reasons for the scourge of illegal mining.
“Most illegal miners are experienced mineworkers who used to work in the mines and they know what they are doing,” said Oliphant.
He said the process would also allow them to openly sell their diamonds on the market and avoid exploitation by third parties, in violation of the Kimberley Process.
He narrated a case where zama-zamas found a 55 carat diamond, which they sold for R6-million on the black market. The person who bought the diamond then sold it for R33-million.
Lucky Seekoei, spokesperson of Kimberley Artisanal Mineworkers, said there are over 2 000 diggers in the cooperative scheme and that the activity has been going on for 16 years.
“We are quite elated about being given a permit; the process has completely changed the mood among ourselves as many more people had given up due to the difficulties of the job,” said Seekoei.
“It’s a historic moment for us, and we are going to make sure that we make this operation a sustainable business for ourselves,” he added.
Winner takes all
He said sometimes the diggers would go for months without picking up anything, while others would have much more luck.
Previously, the person who made the discovery would have to find a buyer on the black market.
“People usually work in small groups, and they share the profit of whatever is found,” he said.
The Minerals Council, formerly known as the Chamber of Mines, said illegal mining activities undermine companies’ efforts to close shafts, as the diggers often reopen sealed shaft entrances.
Mining analyst Peter Major was however sceptical about the move to legalise zama-zamas, saying a more comprehensive policy of dealing with the causes of the illegal mining challenge is needed.
“I will have to wait and see how this development will work out,” said Major. — News 24