/ 4 August 2023

Legalising South Africa’s illegal mining: The key to overcoming its deadly consequences

Port Nolloth Krieks Backyard Diamond Classification Dh 6424
Illegal miners in Port Nolloth collect gravel from abandoned mines on private and state-owned land but do the searching for diamonds in a backyard in the town

The City of Johannesburg technocrats allayed fears this week that the gas explosion in the middle of the central business district a few weeks ago was caused by an intractable surge of illegal mining. But the notion has long been feared and the dread will remain; that the toil of artisanal miners from the length and breadth of southern Africa could trigger a seismic event. 

People worry the activity may cause gas pipelines to explode, including those beneath the largest soccer stadium on the continent, the FNB stadium. Imagine an actual real-life replay of famed US director Christopher Nolan’s American football scene in his final film in his Batman franchise. Instead of a fictional Gotham football team, it could be yet another disappointing Kaizer Chiefs playing Orlando Pirates.

Investigations are still ongoing about the methane gas explosion that led to the death of one Joburger and the injury of 48, and as such they could yet still reveal a different view than city manager Floyd Brink holds. Whatever the outcome, illegal mining poses a threat to not only our rapidly ageing physical infrastructure in Johannesburg and in other gold-mining towns such as Welkom but to the safety of people who live close to long-abandoned shafts. 

It’s another world, a dark and dangerous one, that feeds international criminal syndicates that have seized control of the gold economy. Organised crime is rampant in the country and as it settles in, the more it infiltrates our now clearly ravenous political classes. We have a problem, an obvious one if you consider the history of gold mining.

South Africa’s gold production peaked more than 50 years ago. Over that time shafts have closed leaving men from the hinterlands of the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe out of employment and with very little to return back home to in terms of economic activity. It’s a legacy of a broken migratory labour system and as a mining industry and country we’ve never managed to deal with its ramifications. 

Having long overcome their fears of mining in the world’s deepest and most dangerous shafts, the most desperate of our gold miners have done with their hands the only thing they know well: mine. How many there are, we may never know. How many have died and been lost to their communities, we will never know either. What we do now is that at the peak of South Africa’s gold mining industry, there were about more than half a million people employed, yet today we have fewer than 100 000, the bulk of whom now work for Sibanye Stillwater. Some may have retired, taken up different vocations, or returned to their villages, but what of the rest of the employable people that face a country with an official unemployment rate of more than 30%?

Combine their desperation with a secure and thriving dark economy and we have fertile ground for illegal mining. To deal with the illegal mining crisis, we have to consider the legalisation of artisanal mining. Formalisation has some promise, the benefits are clear: entrepreneurship, job creation, skills development, expanding the tax base, and the multinationals get to benefit because these junior minors will be conducting exploration on their behalf. But as with all things, South Africa is a unique country. 

Legalising artisanal mining is very difficult to contemplate because of just how dangerous it is. In other African countries, they have artisanal mining at surface level where managing risks is much simpler. The South African problem is depth with mining going as deep as four kilometres. It’s dangerous. What are the safety standards, and what is the acceptable death rate for any formal employment in the 21st century? It’s an extraordinary problem borne out of unjust policies of yesteryear. But formalising is but the only path before the city quite literally collapses in on itself.