Illegal mining in SA is in need of decriminalisation
AS MINERALS such as gold become depleted in South Africa, the country needs to formalise and legitimise artisanal smallscale mining. The Mining Forum of South Africa endorses and supports the call by the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other interested stakeholders for legalisation and regulation of artisanal small-scale mining.
Other community NGOs like Mining Affected Communities United in Action group have also called on the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) and the government to decriminalise the artisanal small-scale mining and ensure that they are safe.
Formalising and legitimising artisanal small-scale mining could play a very crucial role in increasing national gold production.
Our people are poor, desperate and unemployed. Under the current difficult economic climate, the criminalisation of small-scale mining when there are millions of unemployed people desperately looking for jobs is not a solution.
Our call to have these artisanal smallscale miners formalised will be intensified, following realisation that they can enhance revenue collection if the minerals they extracted were sold within proper channels. Formalisation of artisanal small-scale miners can reduce smuggling and leakages, and increase fiscal revenue.
It will also make it possible to provide technical expertise and assistance to miners if they are registered and have central processing facilities and training.
These artisanal small-scale miners contribute a lot to the economy, because a lot of the minerals end up back in the formal market, and they are selling it for a lot less than big mines do. This could be a solution to eradicate current ongoing illicit mining.
We are calling on the government to explore the possibility of legalising and regulating the artisanal small-scale mining to minimise the dangers and to remove the criminal elements that compel these desperate people to go underground, without taking any safety precautions.
Harsh economic climate
The illegal mining activities have been on the rise in recent years because of the country’s harsh economic climate, which has seen an increase in unemployment and poverty. Shutting down artisanal mining would mean leaving these people without any means of survival, which in turn would have a negative impact on violent crime and the economy.
These workers are not risking their lives because they are greedy, but they are desperately trying to make a living, they are members of the community and they are breadwinners. Most of these illegal miners are individuals who have been retrenched from the mining industry.
The illegal mining in South Africa has dominated the news from the late 1990s, when large-scale gold mines in the Witwatersrand Basin were decommissioned. Most of these closures were the result of declining gold prices.
The depths at which mining was taking place made many mines uneconomical. Many of the workers who were laid off turned to illegal mining in the region to eke out an existence.
These illegal miners are known as “zama-zamas”, derived from the Zulu word “zama”, which means “to try” – they descend into the ageing shafts and wells, sometimes living for months underground, digging for nuggets of gold. These illegal miners are found in both operational shafts and abandoned mine shafts. Sibanye Gold mining company declared a war on illegal mining in their shafts by setting itself a deadline to stop the practice and it has laid out R200 million to make it happen.
It is currently estimated that about 10 percent of South Africa’s gold production is stolen and smuggled out of the country – about R7 billion a year. A big driver of illegal mining is rising commodity prices. The playing field is spread over 6 000 abandoned gold, diamond, chrome and platinum mines across South Africa. With a workforce of up to 30 000 people – equivalent to the population of a small mining town such as Carletonville on the West Rand – the operations of illegal mining syndicates run day and night.
The DMR has a small-scale mining support unit. However, it does not really cater for artisanal mining in which these illegal miners are involved. The South African Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) of 2002 requires a mining permit from the DMR for small-scale mining to be deemed legal.
You need a licence to start mining. The DMR defines illegal mining as “conducting mining activities without a mining right”. This “right” depends on how long you expect to be digging and the size of the mine. South Africa is also one of the only countries in the world where it is illegal to be in possession of unwrought precious metal without the right authorisation. This is illegal under the Precious Metals Act of 2005.
There is a need to amend the MPRDA and introduce artisanal mining policies to deal with the current problems of illegal mining. We have the capacity to double up our production output, especially in the gold sector. If illegal mining is formalised it would create a lot of jobs in these mining communities, because there are around 6 000 abandoned mines where these people work.
Legalising illegal mining would have a positive effect in the communities they work in, as their work contributes a lot to local economies. Establishing a legal artisanal mining sector would create an opportunity for entrepreneurship for traditional communities and individuals.
The following several steps could be taken by the government to formalise this artisanal mining, including:
Registration and continuous audit of artisanal mining.
Organising the artisanal miners into legal business entities such as co-operatives and training them.
Continuous and regular health and safety inspections.
Creating a supply chain for these artisanal miners.
Creating a central buying agency to purchase the gold from these artisanal miners at market value.
As the Mining Forum of South Africa, we are also worried by escalating deaths of these independent miners and we are calling on the mining sector and the department of mineral resources to address this issue immediately.
An abandoned mine shaft near Brakpan. Rockfalls, gas and murders have claimed the lives of at least 40 unlawful prospectors in South Africa this year.