Illegal mining poses a huge threat to the sector in SA, but the authorities seem powerless to curb it


It is evidence of a national failing, surely, when the most insightful document pertaining to a major SA criminal scourge is a thriller written by an Australian novelist. The scourge is illegal mining, the novelist Sydney-based Tony Park, and the book is The Prey, which went on sale in late 2013.

Park spent time at a mine in Barberton – a hilly, gold-rich area that continues to face tremendous problems with illegal miners. He became good friends with the mine manager and even bought a house nearby.

There is thus a great deal in the novel that, for many in the SA mining industry, will read like non-fiction. ‘When I started learning about the dynamics of illegal mining I became concerned that, even framed as fiction, the details might strike readers as too far out,’ he says.

In The Prey, just as in mining industry parlance, illegal miners are referred to as ‘zama zamas’, which means ‘try try’, or ‘to chance’. Their domain, a mine’s disused or lesser frequented tunnels, is called ‘the madala side’, meaning old part of the mine. Outside of in-house mining company reports, it is only in Park’s novel that one will discover illegal miners drag the bodies of other illegal miners (killed by accidents, exposure to harmful chemicals, etc) to the working parts of the mine. This is so that the bodies will be removed, preventing the spread of disease in the disused tunnels.

Or that the mining companies subject the corpses to rigorous post-mortems, lest the cause of death indicates – as dead amphibians are often said to do – an environmental threat to the legal workforce.

That these and other dynamics fall into something of a national blind spot is largely due to the fact that nobody who is touched by the illegal mining phenomenon really benefits from full disclosure.

The illegal miners themselves have the most obvious disincentive to talk, given the risk of jail time and loss of livelihood. And ever since flash-in-the-pan reality TV celebrity ‘Bad’ Brad Wood was publicly associated with a 2010 shoot-out between illegal miners and his security detail in the tunnels of Aurora Empowerment Systems’ Grootvlei mine, which resulted in the deaths of four illegal miners, mining companies have been all too aware of the reputational risk that attends their dealings with illegal miners, and communicate sparingly in this regard.

The phenomenon also embarrasses the government because illegal mining discourages investment and exposes the desperation that stalks many SA communities. The spokespeople for the SAPS are not overly comfortable with the subject either, because the problem significantly exceeds police intelligence gathering as well as its operational capacities.

‘It’s true, there’s a massive dearth of empirical information with regard to illegal mining,’ said film-maker Adam Welz, director of the documentary Jozi Gold, about gold mining’s difficult social and environmental legacy.

‘The problem basically began to radicalise in the late 2000s because on the one hand a number of gold mines started shutting down, leaving tens of thousands jobless, and on the other the government, caving to union pressure, made it policy that mining companies employ 70% SA citizens, which left tens of thousands of migrant workers from places like Mozambique without work.

‘The mining industry hadn’t anticipated that many of these people, without other options, would go back underground, and knee-jerk reactions became the order of the day, often resulting in serious human rights abuses. For this and other reasons the subject has remained closed to scrutiny and even between industry players there has been scant sharing of the facts,’ says Welz.

Occasionally the government will stage some publicity around combating the phenomenon. In September 2013, Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu visited the West Rand accompanied by media delegates. She claimed illegal mining had been reduced drastically in Mpumalanga, the Free State and Gauteng since her ministry established illegal mining stakeholder forums in 2009.

However, it was not made clear exactly how her office had gauged the reduction. The problem with measuring illegal mining is that none of the existing measures are very meaningful.

‘It’s a slippery one,’ says Andrew Hames, global mining director of G4S. ‘Approximations of the costs of illegal mining are based on the value of recoveries, but this is obviously imprecise, plus it fails to account for the theft of chemicals and machinery by illegal miners in pursuit of their aims,’ he says.


‘This isn’t some survivalist enterprise, it’s big business, organised at every level’


Thapelo Lekgowa, an author who followed the West Rand tour, spoke to a community policing forum member in Matholeville, who said: ‘The [illegal mining] operations have been active since 2010. We caught 84 of the illegal miners once and in no time we had 80 of them out on the street again.’

In a story he wrote for the Daily Maverick, Lekgowa memorably summarised the sometimes cosmetic nature of the state’s illegal mining interventions: ‘Upon arrival and as soon as the illegal miners [men and women] caught sight of the convoy, they took their valuables and ran into the settlement. Out came the community members celebrating the presence of the minister, telling her about the challenges they face because of illegal mining activities [but] as soon as the minister and police started moving from their territory it was back to business as if they had just performed a fire evacuation drill.’

While conducting research, Park found the bulk of what is communicated about illegal mining in SA is anecdotal. ‘That’s great if you’re a writer of fiction, but not so swell if you’re trying to develop policies aimed at combating the problem,’ he says.

Park says in the absence of industry wide research, empirical information, when it emerges, tends to stem from single mine case studies.

‘At the mine where I conducted my research, I was told that the number of illegal miners underground in the tunnels had, at the height of the problem in 2009 or thereabouts, outnumbered the number of legal miners by three-to-one. There were 900 illegal miners and 300 legal workers. I saw no reason to distrust this information. Now the company feels they are getting the problem under control, but it is still estimated that there’s parity between legal workers and illegal workers, so the problem hasn’t gone away,’ he says.

Some of the country’s major mining companies, including Anglo American and Harmony Gold, have publicly said illegal mining activity is a decreasing trend. But this is without offering empirical evidence. If these claims are to be taken at face value, how are mining companies achieving these reductions?

Park recalls going underground at the mine he visited and seeing former Angolan soldiers in military fatigues lining the tunnels, all packing R5 rifles.

‘They hire Angolan soldiers because they have no connections to the surrounding community. It would have seemed a little excessive if I hadn’t been told they were facing 900 illegals compared to a 300-strong legal workforce. When you hear that you realise this isn’t some survivalist enterprise, it’s big business, organised at every level and with multinational tentacles,’ he says.

Harmony Gold’s strategy at certain of its affected mines near Welkom is, in its way, just as extreme. In 2012 it banned its staff from taking food underground in an attempt to starve out illegal miners. Other mines have banned workers from taking money underground.

Hames believes the key to securing mine assets against illegal miners is the implementation of proactive security measures. ‘When a security company is brought in simply to react to a surge in illegal mining, reputational risk reaches its highest levels. That’s why many companies, particularly the larger mining companies that are listed and have high profiles, are increasingly looking for security providers that have rigorous human rights policies, and can provide an integrated security model throughout the project life cycle. Better intelligence and innovative technology helps to negate the use of public security, i.e. firearms and dogs, which will increasingly be reviewed and phased out over time.’

However, Hames says the problem won’t go away until the industry and relevant authorities square up to the multinational nature of illegal mining.

‘It has recently been mentioned in SA that 70% of arrested illegal miners are illegal migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland. Illegal mining can only be addressed if both the supply and demand chain are looked at simultaneously.

‘This would require a massive amount of cross-border collaboration to deal with the national and international syndicates involved, regulating the trade internationally and addressing the collusion of elements in the mining industry and law enforcement,’ says Hames.


Currently this is far from being a reality. SAPS spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale says the police are in consistent contact with the industry and Department of Mineral Resources, via the illegal mining stakeholder forums Shabangu set up in 2009.

According to Makgale, that police conduct weekly operations aimed at demolishing illegal mining infrastructure, confiscating gold-bearing material, arresting illegal miners, stopping illegal water connections and deporting illegal immigrants.

However, in the absence of greater industry transparency and deeper intelligence gathering initiatives these interventions will remain topical and the true nature of illegal mining, and its extent, will remain a mystery.

By Sean Christie
Image: Fredrik Broden/