DURBAN - Mafia-style illegal sand miners have been operating under the noses of Dube Tradeport and government officials on the banks of the eMdloti River on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast.
They allegedly bribed officials from the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) not to take action against them and have scared legal operators by threatening to set fire to their machinery.
DMR spokesperson Ayanda Shezi said he was unaware of allegations that inspectors had been given kickbacks, and called for further information to allow the department to undertake its own investigations.
He confirmed DMR had opened a case with the SAPS to investigate recent incidents of illegal sand- mining on the eMdloti River.
A Sunday Tribune investigation has revealed that since October 2017, an illegal group of sand miners have plundered the river’s bank in the Verulam area of river sand, selling it for almost half the market rate to construction companies.
This has put legal operators out of business. The sand is used to make concrete.
And unlike licensed operators who are required by law to rehabilitate the bank, the illegal operators do not. This has already resulted in the widening of the river’s flood plain in the Verulam area.
This, in turn, could lead to an environmental catastrophe during floods, said concerned environmentalist Mark Raubenheimer.
The Dube Tradeport Corporation confirmed it was aware of the illegal mining on its property, and was working with the department and SAPS in pulling the plug on these operations.
This was after a Sunday Tribune team visited the site and photographed a large excavator belonging to an illegal operator. Security officials on duty claimed to be unaware of who the machinery belonged to.
Two days later, however, Dube Tradeport spokesperson, Vincent Zwane confirmed that machinery belonging to an operator who did not have a sand mining licence, as required by the DMR, had been removed.
“The owner of the machinery on site was Milt (surname not provided),” said Zwane, who provided a cellphone number for the alleged owner.
When contacted by the Sunday Tribune, the man said he was only the driver of the excavator. He confirmed that the owner did not have a sand mining permit and asked that his full name not be disclosed as he was afraid of retribution.
Further queries by the Sunday Tribune revealed that two legal sand mining operators have been chased off the property by members of the “syndicate” brandishing guns.
“The only two permit holders in the area are afraid to mine because they (illegal miners) have just taken over everything,” said one source.
He said while a 15-ton truckload of sand is sold for R900 at a market rate, the illegal miners sell it for around R500, depending on the client’s offer.
He said in the wake of the Sunday Tribune’s probe, the illegal miners had moved their business further upstream closer to Hazelmere Dam.
This was confirmed by Zwane.
“As of April 19, all mining equipment has been removed off site, and all illegal sand mining activities have stopped,” said Zwane.
He added that security patrols had been upped to monitor the area 24/7, and signage alerting sand miners to the presence of a gas pipeline along the banks had been also erected.
Illegal sand mining has been prevalent on eMdloti river for several years, said Raubenheimer, a custodian for environmental conservation in the Mount Moreland district.
“There is a major risk of flooding. Those who don’t have permits are not rehabilitating the river banks they mine. There is no natural vegetation to act as barriers so the flood plain has increased. Anything downstream is at risk,” he said.
The area is home to remarkable creatures, including kingfishers, pygmy chameleons, and tree frogs, said Raubenheimer. These animals may not survive the hazard caused by the bursting of a gas pipeline which lies on the property.