Why illegal artisanal mining in South Africa is out of control

Illegal and unregulated artisanal gold mining on the Witwatersrand Basin is an increasing threat to the security of people, industry and the state. Reports on turf wars between rival gangs and shootouts between illegal miners and security officers are commonplace.

But recent incidents point to a spike in the scale of illegal activity, conflict and criminality.

In October 2021, about 300 illegal miners attacked and shot at police officers and security guards when they tried to prevent the zama zamas from delivering food parcels to miners underground. In June this year, about 150 illegal miners stormed Sibanye-Stillwater’s mothballed Cooke shaft near Randfontein in an attempt to gain control. And more than 80 illegal miners have been arrested and charged with being in the country illegally after a video film crew at a mine dump close to West Village, a suburb of Krugersdorp on the West Rand, was robbed and gang raped last week.

West Village residents have since spoken out about being “prisoners in their own homes”. They attribute rampant crime in the area over the past few years to illegal mining, a situation that law enforcement officials seem unable or unwilling to control.

Failed opportunities to formalise artisanal mining

The spotlight must turn to the systemic reasons artisanal gold mining has become such a threat to peace and security. These include the state’s decades-long failure to nip the unregulated and illegal artisanal mining industry in the bud. 

These incidents are also the result of the failure to formalise artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy through appropriate policies and legislative provisions.

Artisanal mining is a labour-intensive form of mining that uses rudimentary tools and technologies. Other sub-Saharan African countries recognise artisanal mining as a formal mining category. These include Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Foundational policies in the early years of South Africa’s democracy didn’t support artisanal mining as a permanent livelihood strategy. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme simply committed the government to encourage “small-scale mining”. This was on the proviso that safety, labour, environment and health conditions could be maintained. The 1998 Minerals Policy associated artisanal mining with subsistence mining. It flagged the need for the state to employ resources to “control artisanal mining as effectively as possible”.

The 2002 Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act only recognises large- and small-scale mining. It criminalises all mining outside these categories.

In addition, the 2005 Precious Metals Act empowered the South African Diamonds and Precious Metals Regulator to regulate the acquisition, smelting, refining and beneficiation of gold. This removed the prior involvement of the South African Police Service and has been a key enabling factor for the unregulated mining industry.

An illegal artisanal gold mining industry takes root

South Africa’s Witwatersrand goldfields have produced more than 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.

The Minerals Council of South Africa and the police have identified a five-tier hierarchy in the illegal and unregulated gold mining industry. Illegal miners are on the bottom tier. Gangs and illegal mining bosses, licensed bulk buyers (scrap metal dealers and pawn brokers) at national or regional level, front company exporters, and international intermediary buyers and companies are the more significant criminal actors.

The Institute of Security Studies estimates that roughly 30 000 illegal miners produce R14-billion of gold a year. From the state’s perspective this is “lost production”. The United Arab Emirates and Switzerland have been identified as the primary export destinations.

Artisanal mining as a permanent livelihood strategy

Thousands of illegal miners pursue artisanal mining as a permanent, though precarious, livelihood strategy. Recent PhD graduate Maxwell Chuma explored this. He studied the natural, social, financial, human and physical capitals that frame artisanal mining and examined the push and pull factors that drive people into this high-risk activity.

The push factors include a loss of formal employment in the mining industry, lack of alternative employment opportunities and drought conditions in neighbouring countries. The pull factors include the ease of accessing mineralised land, social capital provided by national and ethnic groups in control of illegal mining and the relatively stable income.

The risks and illegality of the work itself, trespassing, the rampant use of mercury and the criminality of the sector make this dangerous and volatile work.

Solutions

In 2014, the South African Human Rights Commission held investigative hearings into unregulated artisanal mining. The commission called for the state to institute an appropriate policy and regulatory framework to facilitate and manage artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy.

In March 2022, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe published the Artisanal and Small-scale Mining Policy. The policy recognises 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 criticised for its failure to take public comments into account. It has also been criticised 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 finalise.

Mantashe must urgently speed up attempts to formalise artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy. The department should hold proper discussions with the mining industry and civil society in this process.

At the same time, a coordinated transnational effort to break the strangle-hold of the criminal syndicates must continue.

Applying a set of principles agreed by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on managing supply chains in conflict and high risk areas could also help manage the problem.

Finally, the powers conferred on the precious metals regulator need to be revisited. The changes need to ensure that property security checks on sellers can be conducted and patterns in the supply of gold can be determined. Unscrupulous licensed bulk buyers of illegally mined gold must also be identified and brought to book.

This is an edited version of an article first published by The Conversation and reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence.

Tracy-Lynn Field is professor of environmental and sustainability law at the University of the Witwatersrand. Dr Maxwell Chuma contributed to this article and the research it’s based on. He is a lecturer at Learnex Corporate Training.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Tracy-Lynn Field
Tracy-Lynn Field is professor of environmental and sustainability law at the University of the Witwatersrand

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