Mining companies in South Africa today face a myriad of global and local pressures. On a global level, there is slow global economic recovery, stagnant or falling commodity prices, and growing nationalism over a nation’s extractive resources. Locally, the companies face an uncertain regulatory environment, rising demands by government, potential labor unrest and shrinking margins 9). When issues related to illegal mining are superimposed on these constraints, the challenges to the South African mining companies become even more complex.
South African mining companies are permitted to mine legally only after they apply for and pay the government for a mining license. The cost of the application is not a set fee, but rather is determined by the government’s Department of Mineral Resources on a case by case basis. Mining is not permitted unless licenses are obtained. The government relies on these license applications as a source of revenue, but increasingly, it is viewing these as opportunities to link huge infrastructural developments to mining license issuance, posing an additional economic risk to mining companies.
According to South African law, the closing of old mines is the sole responsibility of the mining company. The companies are supposed to keep monitoring the closed mine until a closure certificate is issued by the government, yet because this is often subject to delays, illegal mining can take place while the closure is being evaluated. Companies are often frustrated as maintenance costs sky rocket, while the government takes its time in issuing official closure certificates. Mines become increasingly more dangerous to enter because of rock falls and possible poisonous gasses.
Not only are the companies responsible for closing mines, but they also find it difficult to monitor all unused shafts. In some cases, illegal miners dig new – even less stable – shafts that run parallel to existing ones. (This was the case in the Benoni mine shaft.) There is increasing friction between the mining companies and the workers, leading to lengthy, crippling and costly strikes. An additional risk to the companies is posed by the inflammatory rhetoric between politicians and mining companies that has been on the rise. The companies are perceived by mining unions and the government to have “deep pockets” which makes them prime candidates for additional “corrective actions” (such as the linking of licenses to infrastructural projects).
The Mining Unions
The major mining companies are responsible for employing the workers, generating profits and maintaining the mines. When the mines are operational, and in “working condition” or legally open for mining, the National Union of Mineworkers (also known as NUM) organizes all the legally hired mineworkers. NUM has been known to state that low level illegal miners are paying the price for the negative effects of illegal mining while the syndicates are making millions. (The kingpins are becoming richer at the expense of the individual, defenseless illegal miners, prompting parallels between this illegal activity and the economics of the illegal drug trade in the U.S.). In a rarely issued statement on the subject of illegal mining on February 21, 2014, NUM stated that “any business and government that is serious about its people must take urgent steps to tackle this (illegal mining).” The union urges all companies to put more effort and seriousness to close and tighten deserted mines. Illegal mining is not only a manifestation of negligence by mining companies, it is also a challenge to the security of the state and must be responded to accordingly. With the exception of this statement, the NUM has largely ignored the plight of the illegal mine workers. They are, after all, not dues-paying members of the union, and as a result, are not the union’s primary concern.
The authorities are responsible for the deployment of police to control the violence and theft that often go hand in hand with many illegal mining activities. The security police whose charge it is to patrol and monitor these mine shafts, often find they are out-matched by heavily armed groups of illegal mineworkers.
Recent Government Responses to Illegal Mining
In 2012, the then Mineral Resources Minister, Susan Shabangu established a Gauteng (formerly the Transvaal Province of South Africa) Illegal Mining Stakeholders Forum to strengthen efforts to deal with illegal mining in the province where illegal mining is concentrated. The stakeholders include the Department of Mineral Resources, the South African police, the National Prosecuting Attorney, the mining companies, the local governments and organized labor. This forum ultimately reports to the Directorate for Priority Crimes and Investigations (known as the “Hawks”).
The minister called for more “sustainable methods” to insure the closure of open holes, shafts and underground tunnels to prevent illegal miners from reopening previously sealed access points. During a recent period, she indicated her department had closed 130 holes and shafts, and the mining companies had closed an additional 50. She then went on to stress the need for tougher charges and sentences against illegal miners.
Illegal mining is a risky activity which the government, the police and mining companies in South Africa have all historically attempted to prevent. It poses a threat to those directly involved, but can also indirectly affect a broader community, and ultimately an entire nation.
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