Il­le­gal min­ing in SA is in need of de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Ramoba Bless­ings is a min­ing ac­tivist and pres­i­dent and founder: Min­ing Fo­rum of South Africa (MFSA). Ramoba Bless­ings

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.

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