OPINION | SA needs a specialist police unit to deal with 'military precision' illegal mining

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A 'zama zama' under arrest in Randfontein in September 2021.
A 'zama zama' under arrest in Randfontein in September 2021.
Gallo Images/File

The government must set up a specialist mining police task force to combat and prevent illegal mining, as poorly equipped and unmotivated police are no match for professional gunmen toting AK-47s and stolen South African military weapons, writes the Mineral Council's Tebello Chabana.

The South African mining sector is facing an unprecedented crisis in security and crime. The sector is plagued by the criminal syndicates which comprise the procurement and transport extortion mafia, the copper theft mafia, and those who are involved in the illegal mining of products from operating mines, from derelict and ownerless mines, and from old dumps.

There is also large-scale unregulated mining of virgin deposits in South Africa, depriving the state of billions in export earnings, taxes and other benefits let alone the appalling safety and environmental records of these miscreants. The mining sector and country are losing multiples of billions of rands each year to these illegal activities that have escalated hugely over the past five years.

However, it is the gang rape of eight women at old mine dumps near Krugersdorp, the subsequent mass arrests by police of more than 80 people, and the dismantling of illegal mining operations in the area has thrust one of the most serious risks posed to South Africa’s mines, that of illegal mining, into the national conscience.

The Minerals Council South Africa and its members are appalled by the rapes and the violence inflicted on the women and the crew at the film shoot on 29 July 2022. This tragic and horrible incident highlights how broken our society is and that the women in our country are not assured of their safety and their dignity.

While the Minerals Council commends the police for their swift action in making arrests of more than 80 men, it is critical that there are successful prosecutions for those who perpetrated these heinous acts. Gender-based violence and femicide is a deeply problematic issue in our society and needs an urgent intervention from all sectors of our country.

The Minerals Council and its member companies and associations have a zero-tolerance attitude towards gender-based violence and femicide at their operations and within their businesses. While mining companies have policies, programmes, and interventions at their workplaces to address gender-based violence and femicide, the industry reflects the communities from which it draws its employees. Preventing and stopping violence towards women now and into the future needs the collaboration of everyone. We cannot continue in the way we are.

The rapes and assaults in Krugersdorp have raised public and media awareness of the extent of the criminal networks that have infiltrated communities to illegally mine derelict and ownerless mines that fall under the Department of Minerals and Energy as well as operational mines run by legitimate companies.

These organised criminal enterprises, which use violence and intimidation by heavily armed and professional teams to stake their claims and fend off rival gangs, mine security, and police, are one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s mining industry, posing a real risk to employees, their families, mining operations and the environment.

As stated, there are several other security issues besides illegal mining, namely product theft, organised attacks on precious metals facilities, most of which have links to organised crime and global criminal syndicates. These issues are often accompanied by illegal land invasions, destruction of and sabotage of critical infrastructure, underground fires, mine stoppages and a wide range of other related criminal offences such as murder, kidnapping and extortion.

There is an urgent need for the government to set up a specialist mining police task force which is able to combat and prevent illegal mining and the other many security violations affecting the mining industry, something the Minerals Council has repeatedly raised with government ministers since 2018. Poorly equipped and unmotivated police are no match for professional gunmen toting assault rifles such as AK-47s and stolen South African military weapons, and who execute some of their activities with military tactics and precision. These people are not only attacking the mining industry, and Transnet and Eskom, but are also effectively sabotaging the economy of the country. They are effectively committing economic treason.

Equally, the need for dedicated legislation to define and punish illegal mining and the associated crimes are critical. At the moment, illegal miners can expect to escape with a slap on the wrist after being convicted of the minor crime of trespassing. Far tougher laws, effective policing and improved crime intelligence is needed to address illegal mining and the associated criminality, and to make arrests all the way up to the leaders and master minds of these syndicates.

Minerals Council member companies have increased annual spending on security by at least R2.5 billion on top of the billions of rands they already spend to combat the scourge of crime and as illegal mining escalates. Invasions of mine sites by heavily armed gangs to support their fellows with food and supplies or to establish a foothold have resulted in deaths of innocents caught up in gunbattles.

The number of illegal miners is difficult to assess because illicit extraction of minerals has spread beyond gold into chrome, coal, diamonds, and other minerals.

Equally difficult is calculating the value of minerals illegally mined. By its definition, this is an opaque world of criminal masterminds that report to no one and are accountable to no one. But the losses to the country easily run into multiple billions of rands of illicit flows of minerals, lost taxes, salaries, services, and procurement that the formal mining industry provides the country.

The impact goes beyond financial considerations. The negative impact of illicit mining activities on nearby communities, which include rape, murder, violence, human trafficking, extortion, and the degradation of values is compounded by the destruction of water sources and other environmental consequences as a result of unfettered extraction of minerals with no regard to health, safety or environmental rules that strictly apply to the formal mining sector.

The arrests of the more than 80 people around Krugersdorp only addresses the lowest levels of these criminal syndicates, the expendable and easily replaced foot soldiers generating illegally mined minerals. With unemployment at a record high and negligible chances of finding of finding a job in a moribund economy, the chance to make some money from illegal mining is a real option. Communities with no prospects of income and living in failing municipalities, which are exacerbating their hardships, make for easy exploitation by illegal mining syndicates.

The problem is compounded by poor economic conditions and job prospects in South Africa’s neighbouring countries from which it historically drew mining labour. As mining companies increasingly turn to neighbouring communities for labour, reducing the migrant component of its workforces, former miners are sought after by criminal syndicates for their experience and knowledge of SA's underground mines.

And there are many easy opportunities for criminal syndicates to exploit.

The number of derelict and ownerless mines tops 6 100, the majority of which were abandoned long before the first fully democratic elections in 1994 and the implementation of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act in 2004, when tougher rehabilitation and environmental conditions were imposed on mining right holders to prevent a repetition of the mistakes in more than a century of mining. These mines fall under the remit of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE).

Capping old shafts or tunnels with concrete slabs reinforced with steel is no deterrent to determined illegal miners who use explosives to breach them or dig tunnels under them.

In more recent times, some mining companies have taken to filling defunct shafts with thousands of tons of broken concrete and rocks to prevent access to underground workings.

Member companies of the Minerals Council have offered their assistance to the DMRE to expedite the closure and rehabilitation of derelict and abandoned mines, especially when they neighbour existing operations and are used to invade working mines, but the process is painfully slow.

Fresh, innovative thinking is needed by the DMRE when it comes to addressing these legacy operations and the Minerals Council is willing to assist. Outright rehabilitation of old mines to high environmental standards is an extremely expensive exercise, so alternatives plans must be found for these sites which can only be effectively developed and implemented in partnerships with the private sector.

Prevailing legislation and obligations for mining companies around their rehabilitation funds and environmental activities as well as funds set aside for premature closure or abandonment means that the industry is unlikely to again leave behind a legacy that can be exploited by criminal syndicates.

The Minerals Council and its members are engaged with the highest levels of the government and security structures to address mine security and our members are cooperating with police at a local level. The threat to the mining industry and the country as a whole is very real and has accelerated unabated to reach unprecedented levels of outright criminality and lawlessness as pleas to the government for assistance have largely gone unheeded.

South Africa must use the horrific events at Krugersdorp to spur itself into action against criminal syndicates and their operatives to ensure we address an existential crisis and make the country safer for its women and all who live here.

Tebello Chabana is the senior executive for public affairs and transformation at Minerals Council South Africa. Views are his own.

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