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WATCH | Battle between illegal miners and ‘mineral gangsters’ turns North West town into war zone

18 October 2021 - 08:21

The sounds of illicit artisanal miners at work echo across the barren wastelands of Stillfontein’s mine dumps.

The tireless work amid the dry rock, scorched by the beating North West sun, bears little fruit as their painstaking labour often results in less than a gram of gold for a day’s work. 

Facing the might of the law is the last worry in the minds of miners, according to National Association of Artisanal Miners chairperson Paps Lethoka. 

“There is a difference between artisan miners and mineral gangsters," Lethoka said. 

“It gets tough for our members when they work underground. Sometimes when they work underground they meet mineral gangsters. They’ll hold them hostage, take their production and force them to work for free.”

The latest outbreak of violence in the area was a five-hour late night running battle between illegal miners, police and mine security in the tiny North West town of Orkney that left eight people dead on October 5 2021.

According to residents in the area, the continuous firing of automatic weapons could be likened to living in a war zone.

Larochelle Holtzhausen, who lives 800m from the shaft, said the gun fight can be compared to “World War 2”.

“It’s a terrible feeling being at home and a few hundred metres away they’re shooting like it’s World War 2. You hear shots being fired. Sometimes it’s so bad it feels like they're shooting into your property. 

“Every third weekend, at least once a month, it sounds like a war zone. Things go wild,” she said. 

The latest gunfight was part of deadly war being waged by criminal gangs across SA’s gold fields, according to artisanal miner associations.

Driving what artisanal miners call the “blood fields” battleground are organised crime syndicates linked to kidnappings, human trafficking, child labour and enslavement.

Despite the threat of violence and at great personal risk, artisanal miners carry out their tedious work, driven by unemployment and poverty. 

James Mashaba’s friend was killed by “mineral gangsters” while the pair were cleaning tools after a day’s work in 2018. 

“Those people attacked us and started shooting. We tried to run away and they shot my friend. He died immediately”

Mashaba said he would happily work in a different sector but sees little opportunity for change. The miner fears for his safety.

“The recent shootings make me remember what happened to me in 2018, which means I'm very scared,” Mashaba said.

Around 2,000 illegal miners operate within the Dr Kenneth Kaunda District municipality, which includes the towns of Orkney, Stilfontein, Hartbeesfontein and Klerksdorp.

It is estimated SA loses R7bn annually through illegal mining.

Mining experts said it is imperative for government to sign the current draft policy on artisanal and small-scale mining into law if the situation is to be brought under control.

The policy aims to regulate the illegal mining sector and could reduce or even stop unnecessary bloodshed.