The Case of Illegal Mining in South Africa
The Benoni Mine Incident
A rescue operation was undertaken on February 15, 2014 at an abandoned mine shaft in Benoni (near Johannesburg), South Africa in an attempt to rescue a reported group of up to 200 illegal mine workers. At first it was believed that the hundreds of illegal miners had been trapped as a result of a rockslide. Later after emergency workers pulled several miners out, it was revealed that a rival group of (illegal) mineworkers allegedly had used large rocks and a concrete slab to seal off the shaft, leaving the miners for dead, and taking their gold.
This rescue effort captured news headlines for a few days but the story soon faded, particularly after it was suspected that there were far fewer than 200 mineworkers trapped, but the reality was that no one really knew how many workers had even entered the mine. After several days of rescue efforts, emergency workers estimated that only 30 miners were involved in the incident at Benoni, yet the rescue had been hampered by the very people they were trying to save. [It should be noted that the emergency workers used in the Benoni illegal mining incident were not public employees; these were emergency personnel employed by private firms. Their services were required because the insurance policies of the South African police purportedly do not cover them below ground. Others argue that these are unfounded claims, and that the South African police refused to enter the mine due to safety concerns.] After the first dozen miners were rescued, word got back to those remaining below that after surfacing, the miners had undergone a medical examination, had been cleared, then promptly arrested and taken into custody by the local police. The remaining miners resisted coming to the surface, requesting reassurances instead, from the authorities that they would not be arrested. Eventually, a total of 30 miners were coaxed into coming out, some surfaced seeking relief from their ordeal, and others yet, exited because they feared that the authorities would soon deliver on their promise to “seal” the mine in a matter of days. Rumors that 200 miners might still be trapped in a deeper part of the mine were discounted, with authorities stating that they were uncertain if there was any truth to the claim that more remained in a different compartment beneath the ground.
In the end, the 30 miners were arrested because they had been involved in criminal activity: illegal mining. At a minimum, this crime involves trespassing, theft and in many instances illegal entry into the country. Increasingly it involves organized crime syndicates that are often linked to the murder of members of rival [illegal mining] groups. Oversight for illegal mining cases is the responsibility of the South African Police’s (SAP) Organized Crime Unit and if the miners are expatriates – as is largely suspected in the Benoni case – then the South African Department of Home Affairs also gets involved as deportation for the miners is sought. While this is but one example of illegal mining activity in South Africa, the practice has reached staggering proportions. The South African government now estimates that there are more than 14,000 individuals involved in illegal mining, with much of it being the work of the organized crime syndicates mentioned above. The illegal mining industry is now estimated to be valued at $570 million per year (or 6 billion SA rand), according to South Africa’s former Mineral Resources Minister, Susan Shabangu 1).
Mining and South Africa’s Economic History
Mining is an industry that is closely linked to South Africa’s history and economic development. In fact, South Africa’s very first commercial mining company was established as early as 1846 to exploit the newly discovered copper reserves in an area near Cape Town. Not long thereafter, the discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 1800s (near Johannesburg) created a “gold rush” that resulted in an influx of foreigners who arrived in South Africa in search of new found riches. South Africa would forever be transformed. New immigrants arrived from all over Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand in search of gold. Temporary housing (tents) for the new arrivals became permanent housing and towns sprouted up where none had existed just a short time before. The discovery of diamonds and gold and the annexation of lands that contained these rich deposits by the British led to the Boer Wars of the late 1800s.
The mining industry continued to thrive throughout the 1900s, fueling the country’s economic growth. Revenue from gold exports was a source of capital used to purchase machinery and oil, needed to support the country’s expanding manufacturing base. During much of the 20th Century, mining techniques improved. Advances were made in poisonous gas detection methods, more efficient mining methods – including even some chemical extraction methods of minerals from low-grade ore, and better ventilation systems. Gold mining peaked in 1970 when South Africa accounted for 68% of global production 2). Since then, South Africa’s share of global gold production has declined precipitously. In 2012 South Africa accounted for only 6% of global gold production. It was the country’s worst year in gold production since 1905, according to Gold Investing News. South Africa currently ranks as the 5th largest gold producer in the world, and has been overtaken by China, Australia, the United States, and Russia (ranked 1-4, respectively in global gold production) 3). As a result of the increased global competition, South Africa has had to close older, marginal and less profitable mines. When several gold mines closed in the 1990s, thousands of mine workers lost their jobs. Some of the mines still in operation are deeper and more challenging to access, and likely less profitable. The economic factors pose a serious threat to the workers, but there is another threat that has resulted from South Africa’s declining world position in gold production: a significant increase in the number of abandoned mine shafts. South Africa’s Council for Geoscience estimates that there are some 4,400 abandoned mines in the country, almost four times the number of operational mines!
Despite the decline in gold, mining continues to be a vital sector of South Africa’s economy. Today, South Africa is the world’s largest producer of chrome, manganese, platinum, vanadium and other minerals, and the world’s second largest producer of ilmenite, palladium, rutile and zirconium 4). In addition, it contains significant reserves of iron ore, chromium, copper, uranium, silver, beryllium, and titanium 5). In 2013, the nation’s GDP totaled $350.6 billion, and mining accounted for $17.5 billion, or 5% of GDP 6). Other estimates that consider the direct and indirect impacts of the mining sector on the nation’s GDP state that mining gives rise to a “real” contribution to South Africa’s GDP of between 15-20% 7). An estimated 500,000 workers are directly employed in the South African mining sector, while other estimates that take into account the positive economic ripple effects created from direct and indirect employment in the sector attribute 1,365,000+ employments to mining. Given the scale and scope of South Africa’s mineral resources, mining will likely continue to be an integral part of the nation’s economic, social and political landscape.