The scratch-card lottery after which they are named was less risky than their normal day at the office, but the ‘zama-zamas’ certainly hit an approach shot in the Northern Cape this week. 

The watershed deal brokered by Deputy Mining Minister Godfrey Oliphant to recognise the Kimberley Artisanal Mineworkers is a bigger story than President Cyril Ramaphosa being invited to the G7 Summit in Quebec, Canada.

After years of risking their lives and dignity to extract diamond fragments from a site belonging to Ekapa Mining Joint Venture in Kimberley, Oliphant shared a podium with Lucky Seekoei, of the Kimberley Artisanal Mineworkers, to celebrate the legal recognition of the people we somehow consider the scum of the mining industry. 

In our economy, anchored around Johannesburg - essentially a mining town - possibly the most unequal in the world, artisanal miners personify the resilience of humanity. With nothing to fall back on, people make a plan.

Unlike the punters who bought zama-zama scratch cards, luck is the last thing artisanal miners rely on. They thrive on guts, self-reliance and enterprise worthy of our respect.

“We cannot go hungry while the country is having minerals”, Seekoei said on behalf of the Batho-pele Co-operative. This is the entity that got the permit allowing them access to nearly 600 hectares of tailings resource dams, under the control of Ekapa Mining.

Ekapa is owned by Petra Diamonds, a $430-million R5.6 billion) diamond mining group listed on the London Stock Exchange to raise funds for its operations in South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania.

The company incidentally owns 75% of Williamson Diamonds in Tanzania, where the government also made a breakthrough with artisanal miners of tanzanite this week.

Since John Magufuli took over as president of Tanzania in November 2015, he viciously went about plugging the institutional holes that were robbing his country of its rightful mining revenues. 

He strengthened institutions and border controls, including building a 24km wall around tanzanite mines near Kilimanjaro. From that time on, many a company were bust for under-declaring their output or not paying due royalties and taxes.

The upside of this crackdown includes his settlement with London-listed Acacia Mining. The company will be paying $300m to Tanzania to make the dispute go away.

However, the good news from the decision by Magufuli to fence off the tanzanite mine fields was when the government collected about $270 000 in royalties from their artisanal miners in three months to March. Before the fence and improved controls, the government collected this amount in three years!

At the heart of these two developments in different African countries is the positive trend towards more inclusive mining policies. Mining by nature is finite. It strips the Earth of natural resources that it cannot replace. Although diamonds can now be manufactured, one day, whatever these companies mine, will run out. It is therefore only fair and sensible that the people around which areas they mine should be allowed a share of the action.

Besides, as mining analyst Ted Blom told Cathy Mohlahlana on eNCA, artisanal miners and bulk miners are complementary. 

Blom logically said that the big mines leave a lot of residual resources on the periphery of what they extract; which will go to waste unless junior or artisanal miners are invited to mop them up. 

With at least 30% of the country’s gold and platinum disappearing through illegal or artisanal mining, he added, the latter is better off legitimised, instead of ‘treating them like scavengers or crooks’.

The headline today might be about artisanal miners; but it is also about the latent power of what we call the informal economy. Instead of treating the zama-zamas with disdain, as we do with hawkers at our traffic light intersections or taxis that transport millions of our people daily, perhaps we should respect and legitimise them so that they can operate within the law. 

This will ensure that they pay their share of taxes. Much more than that, though, an inclusive economy guarantees socio-political stability; goodness knows we need that.

* Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business; media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a columnist for Destiny Man.

Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica

The Sunday Independent