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Illegal mining is the new form of oppression that will hamper our socio-economic growth and transformation

The aftermath of the Boksburg explosion. Photo: Timothy Bernard/ANA

The aftermath of the Boksburg explosion. Photo: Timothy Bernard/ANA

Published Jul 17, 2023

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SOUTH Africa has sustained large scale mining for more than 100 years. We have a mature and well-developed mining sector on which our economy was built. Mining provided stable income for the country despite any environmental fluctuations, unlike other perishable goods. The income stability came at a cost though - the social reconfigurations that scarred and changed the country forever.

The mining industry has created multi dollar billionaires and created jobs for many, alongside the deep social breakdown and social ills. Displaced families and a broken social fibre brought about by the demand for labour in the mines. Strong young men were forced to leave their families and homelands to look for opportunities in the mines, taking huge risks to their health and lives because of poor conditions.

A lot has improved over the years due to strict regulations and laws that demand the protection of lives and health of miners.

Mining remains a lucrative business as South Africa remains rich in minerals. However, due to the strict regulatory laws and massive barriers to entry, as obtaining a prospecting license is a lengthy and costly process, we have seen a massive rise in illegal mining.

Illegal mining is dangerous and costly, not only to the miners who go underground unprotected, but also to the environment and the economy. The recent deaths of 16 people in the Boksburg gas leak disaster have once again shed light on the dangers associated with illegal mining in the country, underscoring the urgent need for effective solutions, as the practice continues to flourish despite government efforts to stop it.

The ramifications of illegal mining are far-reaching and may have dire effects on the country’s economy, investment opportunities and social security.

According to research by the Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade, there are between 8 000 and 30 000 illegal miners working in South Africa. Locally known as zama-zamas, the illegal miners are often young men who have fled from neighbouring countries to the promise of quick riches from mining decommissioned mines.

However, the reality of illegal mining is often dangerous and deadly to both the miners and the community they are operating in. Some of the dangers of illegal mining include effects on the environment such as the formation of sinkholes, contamination of soil and groundwater, chemical leakages and others which may hinder the productivity and health of the local community.

Unfortunately, the remnants of how the mining industry was established (exploitation and manipulation to attract labour) continue to drive the attraction to illegal mining. Although with some differences; poverty, unemployment, inequality, and hopelessness are the reasons some of these young men are willing to risk their lives for some hope of a better life.

Illegal mining has been used as one of the options to escape poverty, restore hope and get ahead in a society with limited opportunities. But the cost of illegal mining to the country’s economy is significant, impacting the financial resources and hindering overall development.

It is estimated that illegal mining was costing the country R7 billion each year. This includes the loss of revenue from taxes and royalties, as well as the damage to the environment and infrastructure. This loss of revenue intensifies poverty and inequality within affected communities by limiting the government’s ability to invest in important services and infrastructure.

Illegal mining is a complex problem driven largely by a general sense of lawlessness in the country. It is a practice that is reported to be perpetuated by corrupt state officials and mining officers who are being bribed to open the decommissioned mines.

Of course, government and the mining industry are expected to take action to address this problem. As such, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) has adopted a three-pronged approach in dealing with illegal mining practices.

Firstly, promoting legitimate mining practices through authorisation of mining permits. Secondly, to rehabilitate derelict mines and sealing mine entrances and shafts to prevent illicit access. Lastly, for the DMRE to work closely with law enforcement agencies to reduce incentives to entering the practice of illegal mining.

These efforts are well and good. However, for as long as there is a market, it would be difficult to bring an end to illegal activities through increasing law and order and security measures alone. We need to address the root causes. We must find ways to address the moral fibre in this country. We need to re-engineer society to give meaning and a sense of purpose to young men to not find these activities worth risking their lives for.

Alternatives to a better life must be advanced, together with consequences for undesired behaviour in general and illegal mining in particular, otherwise the problem is likely to persist.

Dr Sibongile Vilakazi is the president of the Black Management Forum.

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