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Death and blood, the currency of illegal mining

21 February 2014, 10:01

The genesis and death stench of illegal mining in South Africa, and Africa, has a long history of impunity. Its unabated flourishing is well documented and continues to profit syndicates with the blood of the poor and vulnerable. One can only welcome the news of a high level investigation being launched by the Hawks, albeit this late, to curtail an industry whose banner is painted with blood of thousands of poor young men.

South Africa has a long history of mining and mining is an important foreign-exchange earner, with gold accounting for over one-third of South Africa’s exports. It is said up to 30% of the gold that is mined in SA is stolen before it can generate profit for the mining houses. African and South African mines face the unique and devastating problem of illegal miners and illegal mining activity.

The most infamous case to date was when 91 illegal miners perished after a fire broke out underground in a disused section of Harmony Gold Mining's Eland shaft in the Free State goldfields in June 2009. The case attracted international attention and led to crackdown attempts by government.

Illegal gold mining is a well-known criminal business with illegal miners being known as ‘Zama Zama’ workers. The word ‘zama’ means ‘take a chance’ and is the name given to the approximately 70 000 illegal miners who burrow unlawfully beneath the soil for up to six months at a time.

Mostly; Zama Zama workers are simply poor foot-soldiers enlisted by larger criminal cartels and international gold smugglers who then act as kingpins that manage the workers and operate illegal mining syndicates. Illegal mining is multifaceted - mostly involving lucrative products like gold, diamonds and platinum.

The syndicates often include armed security guards, shift managers and also skilled legal miners who supervise the Zama Zama and supply equipment and guidance. From the Zama Zama’s point of the view the kingpins are their bosses but also their customers as they buy the gold mined by the Zama Zama and then move it on making vast profits on what they have paid. The miners know their bosses make a much higher profit margin on their bloodied labour but are mostly complacent and happy with the lot they receive.

It is understood that the kingpins supply them with food; water and security when they’re underground, miners pay inflated amounts for anything extra. An unnamed illegal miner told eNews Channel that; "If we manage to work a day and night, we get 400 rand a day."

Cigarettes go for between R200 and R400 a pack of 20 (depending on the brand), Oudemeester brandy from R800 to R1 000 and Fish Eagle whisky close to R1 500. Those with a sweet tooth fork out R20 for a lollipop. The kingpins pay the guards R1 500 to R2 000 a go to secure access to the shafts for illegal miners.

Illegal miners do not only enter disused mine shafts, they also use active ones. There are several alternative points of entry that are created. The operations are made easy through deviant relations with managerial staff.

The temptation to rationalize and blame socio-economic factors, both in South Africa and in neighboring countries, as playing a huge role in driving illegal mining activity; falls flat from the beginning.

This is an illegal industry that is estimated at R5.6 billion per year, excluding illegal mining in the platinum and copper mines; therefore looking for solutions cannot be myopic. Neither can it turn a blind eye on the ‘big fishes’ who are raking in these billions.

To use the Mexican experience; it would be advisable for the Hawks to look no further than the existing cartels with international connections. In Mexico, drug cartels looking to diversify their businesses move into oil theft, pirated goods, extortion kidnapping and illegal mining.

It is also understood that Indian and Chinese middlemen are thought to play a key role in buying the gold, which is laboriously sifted from each bag of sand hauled up to the surface. The Police and mine managers are accused of being bought to turn a blind eye, or even be actively involved in the trade. Similarly; a portion of blame has to go to the big mining companies who fail to take the necessary measures to seal off the old tunnels. Perhaps, they too, have something to gain….(angazi!)

Large-scale illegal mining operations have long been thought as a wild rumor, but it has become clear that this is an industry that is fast growing and very lucrative. To exorcise it completely, investigating authorities must look further than the producers who put their lives on the line to enrich criminals. It is clear that there is a well-entrenched supply chain, from points of entry and export to international markets, controlled by cartels.

With our mining sector beset with a series of strikes, inter-& intra-union rows,   mining profitability being under threat, lay-offs on the lips of bosses - the world biggest platinum producer Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) getting rid of 5,000 jobs, after initially planning to shed 14,000 – a luxuriant ground is laid for the flourishing of this bloodied industry. Blood cannot continue to be a currency of an illegal trade. A concerted effort, from all stakeholders, may be a silver bullet to bringing this calamity to an end.

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