Moipone Tabi was shocked to find a community literally living in the shadow of death around massive open pits left by illegal sand miners.
The rural community in villages near Hammanskraal – Dilopye, Suurman and Swartbooistad – had seemingly accepted their lot as a normal way of life.
Children risked their lives daily, walking to school past the pits that filled up with water during the rainy season.
Farmers constantly lost their goats and cattle which accidentally fell into the pits.
Tabi, a community activist based in Marikana in North West, was even more surprised to find that locals did not even know that extracting soil constitutes mining and that the community had a right to stop the practice.
“People have a voice but don’t know how to use it [against illegal sand miners],” said Tabi during a session of the 10th Alternative Mining Indaba (AMI) in Cape Town last week.
The indaba was established by NGOs, civil society and community groups in response to the African Mining Indaba, which is a platform for captains of the mining industry to discuss ways of maximising profits and growing their businesses.
The AMI, on the other hand, gives communities affected by mining the opportunity to share their experiences and build solidarity against mining companies. The events run during parallel times in the same city.
While the focus on illegal mining has been on those involved in the mining of minerals such as gold and diamond, indications are that illegal sand mining happens on an even greater scale and poses a big risk to communities.
Sand and gravel are used in construction and in the manufacture of cement. Rapid development and a greater need for new roads and buildings for residential, business and industrial use continue to push the demand for the resources.
“It [illegal sand mining] leaves a big negative impact on communities. Even land for human settlement is taken up because of illegal sand mining,” said Tabi.
In a 2014 report titled Sand, rarer than one thinks, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) says sand and gravel account for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally.
It also says sand and gravel account for the highest volume of raw material used on earth after water. UNEP warns that the resources are now being extracted at a rate far greater than their renewal and that the volume of extraction is having a major impact on rivers, deltas, and coastal and marine ecosystems.
This, according to the organisation, results in loss of land through river or coastal erosion, lowering of the water table and decreases in the amount of sediment supply.
Kgosi Oscar Mosielele, a traditional leader in the Moshupa subdistrict of Botswana, says the scourge of illegal sand mining “has reached catastrophic levels” in the area. He says illegal sand mining led to the deaths of three people in the district last year alone. Mosielele says the loss of livestock which are trapped in the gaping pits after falling in there accidentally is even greater.
“You will be surprised that some of this illegally mined sand builds our roads and government offices,” says Mosielele.
He says a combination of a lack of government will and the complicity of influential people in public office posts dealing with practice and legislation issues makes it difficult for traditional leaders to tackle illegal sand miners.
Although illegal sand mining impacts on communities, they hardly derive any benefit from the activity.
“They [illegal sand miners] don’t mind digging near homes. They actually sell the soil back to the very same communities at ridiculously low prices,” says Tabi.
In a study titled The Regulation of Sand Mining in South Africa (Stewart Christopher Green, University of Cape Town) sand mining is described as “relatively unsophisticated and rudimentary”.
Green lists the basic equipment of a sand miner as a bulldozer to clear vegetation and build access roads; an excavator or front-end loader to scoop up sand from the deposit; and trucks to cart the sand away.
“The barriers to entry are, therefore, low and a sand mining operation can be set up with relatively low costs.
“In fact, sand mining is ideally suited to small-scale miners and new entrants to the industry. Profits on the sale of sand can be high, making this industry quite lucrative.”
Glen Monye, a community land rights activist based in Mokopane, says the practice is widespread in villages around the Limpopo town and proposes that there needs to be a concerted effort to educate communities about their rights.
“The issue of sand takes a back seat compared to mineral mining such as diamond and gold. Communities need to be taught how to deal with this,” says Monye.
Tabi says that during workshops held with communities affected by illegal sand mining, it was apparent that most people who were landowners did not know their rights or understand how to deal with illegal sand miners.
She says one of the areas being targeted by illegal sand miners in the Hammanskraal area was in fact earmarked for platinum mining but the landowners didn’t even know about this.
The extraction of sand is protected by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 that stipulates that anyone wishing to mine sand needs to apply for a permit from the department of mineral resources. However, it appears that sand miners simply ignore this regulation.
In 2014, environmental management inspectors, or the Green Scorpions, from the department of environmental affairs went on a countrywide blitz, targeting illegal sand miners.
The operation led to legal action being taken against at least 20 people and companies arrested during the operation.
Although the operation was deemed a success it focused on large-scale miners, meaning that small-scale illegal operators affecting communities like the Hammanskraal villages continue to operate.
In 2016 the department of water and sanitation applied for a court interdict to stop a company without proper permits from mining sand in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the areas most affected by illegal mining.
Mosielele says that, in Botswana, the department tasked with regulating mining often cites a lack of resources as one of the challenges impacting on their ability to deal with illegal sand miners.
He says traditional leaders struggle with the issue due to legal challenges, because customary law is superseded by civil law, rendering chiefs powerless against the perpetrators.
“It is not very easy. As a chief my powers are limited. We can’t deal with these cases in our [traditional] courts,” he says.
Tabi says illegal sand miners need to be regulated and monitored in the same way government deals with artisanal miners.
“Why are sand miners not registered and [yet] are referred to as miners but we call others [zama zamas] artisanal miners?”
She says the spiritual connection to the soil needs to be respected as in many communities and societies it is not only viewed as a resource used for construction and industrial use.
“Our umbilical cords fell on that soil. We have a connection [to it] that cannot be explained,” she says.