Illegal and unregulated artisanal gold mining on the Witwatersrand Basin, south of Gauteng, is an increasing threat to community, industrial and state security. Reports on turf wars between rival gangs, or shoot-outs between illegal miners and security officers, are commonplace.
But recent incidents point to a spike in the scale of illegal activity, conflict and criminality.
In October 2021, about 300 illegal miners, known as “zama zamas”, attacked and shot at police and security officers when the officers tried to prevent them from delivering food parcels to underground miners. In June 2022, about 150 illegal miners stormed gold miner Sibanye-Stillwater’s mothballed Cooke shaft near Randfontein in an attempt to gain control. And since last week, South Africans have been reeling at the horrific robbery and gang rape of a film crew at a mine dump close to West Village, a multiracial suburb of Krugersdorp on the West Rand.
West Village community members have since spoken out about being “prisoners in their own homes”. They attribute rampant crime in the area over the past few years to illegal mining — a situation that law enforcement officials seem unable or unwilling to control.
In the wake of these incidents, the spotlight must turn to the systemic reasons artisanal gold mining has become such a threat to peace and security. These include the state’s decades-long failure to nip an unregulated and illegal artisanal gold mining industry in the bud. These incidents are also the result of the failure to formalise artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy through appropriate policies and legislative provisions.
Failed opportunities to formalise artisanal mining
Artisanal mining is a labour-intensive form of mining that uses rudimentary tools and technologies. Other sub-Saharan African countries recognise artisanal mining as a formal mining category. These include Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Foundational policies in the early years of SA’s democracy didn’t support artisanal mining as a permanent livelihood strategy. The 1994 reconstruction and development programme simply committed the government to encourage “small-scale mining”. This was on the proviso that safety, labour, environment and health conditions could be maintained. The 1998 minerals policy identified artisanal with subsistence mining. It flagged the need for the state to employ resources to “control artisanal mining as effectively as possible”.
The 2002 Mineral & Petroleum Resources Development Act only recognises large- and small-scale mining. It criminalises all mining outside these categories.
In addition, the 2005 Precious Metals Act empowered the SA Diamond and Precious Metals Regulator to regulate the acquisition, smelting, refining and beneficiation of gold. This removed the previous involvement of the SA Police Service and has been a key enabling factor for the unregulated gold mining industry.