Tshwarelo Hunter Mogakane
Pretoria - A Gauteng farm owner is among nearly 100 suspects arrested for allegedly running illegal mining operations involving Lesotho nationals.
SA Police Services spokesperson Colonel Athlenda Mathe said the suspects were arrested in Heidelberg, Gauteng, on Sunday.
“A national multi-disciplinary team, established to clamp down on illicit mining activities, have arrested 97 illegal miners and a 62-year-old farm owner in Heidelberg.
“Following an intelligence-driven operation, a team consisting of various specialised units in the SAPS swooped on a farm where the illegal miners had been operating from.”
Mathe said the team included members of the National Intervention Unit, Tactical Response Team, Public Order Police, Crime Intelligence, detectives and bomb disposal specialists, as well as private stakeholders.
After interrogating the suspected illegal miners, the team seized mining equipment and implements.
“The team also discovered that all the suspects – between the ages of 18 and 35 – are Lesotho nationals, and a majority of them were in the country illegally.
“Three unlicensed firearms and 570 rounds of ammunition were also seized.
“The firearms have been taken in for ballistic testing to determine if they were utilised in any other crimes. The farm owner has also been arrested after he too was found with illegal ammunition and gold-bearing equipment,” said Mathe.
The suspects have been charged with illegal mining, being in the country illegally, human trafficking, possession of explosives and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
They are expected to appear in the Heidelberg Magistrate’s Court this week.
“Members of the public are always encouraged to report any illicit activities to the Crime Stop Hotline number on 0860 010 111 and the MySAPSApp," said Mathe.
According to the Minerals Council of South Africa, 70% of all suspects arrested in connection with illegal mining are undocumented foreign nationals from Lesotho.
The council states in a report: “Illegal mining activities take place on the surface and underground, and manifest at closed-off mines, abandoned mines and in many cases – even at operating mines.
“Illegal miners frequently risk their own health and safety, as well as that of others, by entering mostly abandoned shafts and sometimes operating shafts, travelling as far as 4km underground, where they live for several days at a time.
“Illegal artisanal mining is often organised and conducted by crime syndicates. Illegal miners, known in South Africa as ‘zama zamas’, are often heavily armed and, when trespassing on operating mines, set ambushes and booby traps for employees, security and rival groups of illegal artisanal miners.”
The council said it had also been established that illegal miners worked for syndicates, which made huge profits from the illicit activities.
“Because they serve organised crime bosses, the miners taking these risks do not often realise the real value of their efforts as the crime bosses take the bulk of the profits.
“The illegal mining market is a well-managed, five-tier syndicate system. The Minerals Council has recognised that the only way to deal with the problem is to focus on the supply and demand side of illegal mining – all five levels of the syndicates need to be addressed.“
While local police and mine security deal with the first two tiers, the Minerals Council, assisted by the Standing Committee on Security, SAPS, the National Co-ordinating Strategic Management Team and the Department of Mineral Resources are working to identify and deal with the next three levels, which constitute the buyer market nationally and internationally.
“This work is undertaken hand-in-hand with international agencies such as the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, police in Europe, Interpol and international embassies,” the report states.
The arrests of the suspects come days after the media reported that the massacre of 16 people at Nomzamo tavern in Orlando East, Soweto, two weeks ago was part of a turf war and revenge killings between rival gangs of illegal mining groups of Basotho nationals.
According to the reports, the 15 innocent patrons were caught up in the crossfire when rival gunmen fired at Thabo Kwepe, a Lesotho national and member of a rival group, who had been traced to the tavern. The killers, who are said to have arrived in a white taxi shortly after midnight, also fired indiscriminately, injuring scores of other patrons. Another man, Lerotha Hlabanyane, was reportedly killed execution-style hours before the Soweto tavern killings.
Police Minister Bheki Cele revealed that experts had recovered more than 130 used AK-47 cartridges from the crime scene. He later deployed the SAPS’s notorious tactical response team (TRT), also known as Amabherete.