/ 25 October 2022

Criminal syndicates, as well as individuals, part of illegal gold mining on the West Rand

Why It Doesn't Make Sense That All Informal Mining Is Deemed Illegal
why-it-doesnt-make-sense-that-all-informal-mining-is-deemed-illegal. Image: Supplied

I read Brian Ganson’ article “Call for war on zama zamas will not bring peace to South Africa’s platinum belt” published on 3 October with great interest, but with mounting disappointment. Ganson is a well-respected academic and authoritative figure in conflict studies. 

Ganson amplifies and falsely contextualises a single comment attributed to Neal Froneman to create a deliberate overstatement of Froneman as a reactionary for the purpose, it is clear, of taking the Sibanye-Stillwater chief executive down.

This is as unfair as it is counterproductive. A falsely premised moralistic browbeating is no way to engage in dialogue. 

Froneman does indeed have strong opinions on how the scourge of illegal mining must be addressed on the West Rand. According to one article referenced by Ganson, Froneman has called for the imposition of a state of emergency involving the military to confront the threat of illegal mining, specifically on the West Rand. 

This is because Sibanye-Stillwater is having to operate as a legal mining operation in a geographic area that is increasingly dominated by organised criminal elements that have supplanted the authority of the state, and it is having to confront daily those same elements from operating inside its own mine shafts. 

Both Ganson and Froneman acknowledge that the ordinary zama zama is a victim of complex socioeconomic circumstances. However, to characterise the zama zama phenomenon purely as “artisanal miners who exploit shafts that have been abandoned by mining companies” (as Ganson does) is to ignore the criminal reality of the illegal gold industry that has been uncovered by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime

The same article in which Froneman’s comments appeared also quoted mining chief executive Niel Pretorius of DRDGold, who speaks of “people who do not hesitate to shoot at staff”. Whether or not you agree with Froneman’s suggestion that the army should be mobilised to combat this threat, it is possible to understand where his plea is coming from. 

The dynamics of the mining conflict in South Africa are extraordinarily complex. There are high-level social and economic factors – unemployment; in-migration compounding a lack of basic services; insecurity and lawlessness; and the broad question of the legitimacy of representation and leadership; to name but a few – that are common across mining areas.

However, the West Rand is currently a very different place to the platinum belt, which is itself a minimum of three geographically and socially distinct areas, each with its own particular conflict undercurrents. It is simply a misrepresentation to suggest that Froneman was calling for military assistance on the platinum belt, and to do so is needlessly inflammatory. 

Effective conflict resolution requires the intermediary to build trust in themselves as an honest broker before they can build trust between the parties. By taking the approach he did, Ganson has undermined his credibility as an objective intermediary, and there is now a danger that some of the interesting suggestions he made may be overlooked.

Ganson is right to refer to the historic role of mining. In the early days, mining went hand-in-glove with the formation of apartheid – through the triad of hut taxes, land dispossession and the pass laws. Later, many mining companies and senior executives sought to keep their heads down, and so acquiesced to apartheid’s continuation.

In the face of violent threats to their managers and employees, there is now a danger that mining companies will acquiesce again, this time to acts of brazen extortion and disruption as various criminal elements muscle in on opportunities in the mining supply chain. This is at the expense of legitimate emerging businesses. Criminal elements also seek to corner the proceeds of community development trusts at the expense of legitimate beneficiaries. These are the iniquities that the sector now contends with.

An acknowledgement of mining’s historic ills, and the legacies that persist, is necessary if we are to move forward. But it’s also important to acknowledge the modern ills and the failures that are their cause. Illegal mining in South Africa is a phenomenon of the last 20 years. We must acknowledge the range of governance failures that have allowed organised crime to gain a foothold so surely and so swiftly.

Of course, mining is not the only industry facing these new pressures. As the fabric of the state frays, the private sector faces ever greater demands that it should perform tasks that are the ordinary lot of government. Business has an increasing developmental role to play, and I believe it can and must be a positive agent for change. The temptation may be to retreat further behind the figurative walls and to keep the turbulence of the outside world at arm’s length. But that approach is no longer viable.

The work that we are busy with is to coax companies out from behind the barricades, to build trust with those increasingly voluble stakeholders, and find common areas for practical collaboration – to build capacity where it is limited – to solve our common problems. The clock is ticking. Castigating rather than encouraging business leaders sets us all back.

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