The problem of illegal mining has grown in scale and complexity, necessitating a shift in strategies for mine security and law enforcement as traditional methods prove inadequate. Additionally, the sophisticated nature of illegal mining operations requires enhanced collaboration and coordination among mines, private security firms, law enforcement and other government departments. This also requires a willingness to allocate increased resources to effectively address the problem.

By Themba Khumalo

For several years zama-zamas have been thumbing their noses at the law and gleefully engaging in illegal gold mining activities across the country, with a special emphasis on the Gauteng.

For almost 140 years, the gold rush sparked the birth of Johannesburg and ultimately turned it into one of the most vibrant and impactful cities in Africa.

However, the criminal and dangerous activities of zama-zamas are pushing the city towards a frightening situation that continues to affect us around the clock. If not addressed effectively, these individuals are going to cause even more chaos. Their rogueries pose a serious risk, causing significant hardships in certain areas and presenting a menacing threat to many others.

In recent years, the scourge of illegal mining has wreaked havoc, causing legitimate mines to shut down temporarily, trapping or even claiming the lives of illegal miners underground, and fuelling a surge in violent confrontations as rival gangs vie for dominance over unauthorised mining operations. A mine manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity to Africa in Fact, revealed the alarming extent of the situation, describing how criminal miners have advanced to the point of hijacking legal mines and holding lawful miners at gunpoint, while daring zama-zamas brazenly pilfer gold from sanctioned mines, leaving mine managers to grapple with chilling death threats.

When Gauteng residents sound the alarm that their neighbourhoods are reaching breaking point because of these rogue gold miners who are causing chaos, making the police run for cover, stealing power cables, and tampering with water supplies, they are not pulling anyone’s leg.

In September, Panyaza Lesufi, the Premier of Gauteng, urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to take bold and resolute measures against the scourge of illegal mining in the province, emphasising the need for the government to unleash its full power to tackle this pressing issue.

“We are under siege from amazama-zama in our province, we are under siege from criminals in our province. Please, comrade president, bring the firepower of the state, whether it is the army or police, they must go down there and flush them out until the last person is standing,” Lesufi said.

This wasn’t the first time Lesufi had made a similar request. During an interview with Newzroom Afrika on 21 August, he appealed for the deployment of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and extra security forces to assist the province in addressing the issue of illegal miners, who are causing significant problems in various communities.

“I am very firm on that. Not only the army, but we need all law enforcement agencies firepower, capabilities of those law enforcement agencies. If it is the army, the police, the metro police or whoever has that mandate to ensure that we protect South Africans, they must do so,” Lesufi said in the interview.

For a while now, the presidency has been as silent as a whisper and as hesitant as a fence-straddler in deciding whether to deploy the military to confront those rogue miners. The shenanigans of these illegal miners are causing significant financial losses for the country and exacerbating the already high levels of crime and violent fatalities.

Well after much hemming and hawing, scratching their heads in confusion, and the usual political snoozefest, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has at last given the go-ahead to deploy 3,300 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) members to collaborate with the South African Police Service under Operation Prosper. This joint effort aims to restore law and order and crack down on illegal mining across the country, commencing on October 28, 2023, and continuing until April 28, 2024. The anticipated cost for this operation is almost R500million.

“Members of the SANDF will, in cooperation with the South African Police Service, conduct an intensified anti-criminality operation against illegal mining across all provinces, from 28 October 2023 until 28 April 2024,” the presidency said.

The Filthy Gold Barons

It’s great to see the presidency finally waking up and acknowledging the importance of deploying the military with more force to tackle illegal mining. But this is just the first step. It’s crucial to go after and capture the people making billions from illegally mined gold.

The criminal masterminds behind the illegal gold trade are taking advantage of the harsh socio-economic realities that dehumanise many individuals in South Africa and its neighbouring countries. These elusive gold barons are orchestrating intricate criminal operations from afar, preying on the vulnerable and marginalised populations.

Like a swarm of bees buzzing around a honeycomb, most zama-zamas diligently toil away at their job, driven by their challenging socioeconomic circumstances. However, it is equally crucial to grasp the intricate web of criminal elements that dance within the sector, like shadows lurking in the darkness. Criminal syndicates operating in these mines are as relentless as a pack of hungry wolves, employing every trick in the book to accomplish their objectives.

As a result of its connection to a range of organised criminal activities including human trafficking, money laundering, illegal weapons and explosives smuggling, violent crimes, customs violations, and tax evasion, addressing illegal mining necessitates targeting individuals operating at different tiers within the criminal network. Focusing exclusively on informal miners (zama-zamas) may not be the most efficient strategy, as criminal syndicates can readily substitute them with the substantial number of unemployed individuals lacking alternative means of livelihood.

The intricate web of illegal mining is proving to be a tough nut to crack, with its complexity posing a formidable challenge. It is not a puzzle that can be solved by a lone organization or government department working in isolation. Until this changes, the “gold barons” will continue to reap the rewards of the illegal mining network’s prosperity.

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