The Government’s Position on Illegal Mining
Laws in South Africa prohibit any one without a license to mine or process gold. However, local authorities lack the manpower needed to properly monitor the thousands of abandoned mine shafts. The South African government is concerned that the large number of “freelance” miners, coupled with a decline in some sectors (e.g. gold) is having a significant negative impact on tax revenues. South Africa’s Chamber of Mines, an industry association, estimates that South Africa loses about 5% of its potential annual mineral production to illegal mining. This lost production is valued at around $2 billion. The government estimated that in 2010, it had lost approximately $500 million in tax revenues and [lost] export revenue due to illegal mining 8). These lost funds could have been used to support much-needed social service programs for the country’s poor and unemployed.
The Realities of Legal Mining
It is human labor that must be used to mine natural resources, as there are few machines that can do the work required to extract the minerals. There are inherent risks in mining: potential rock slides, poisonous gases, etc. But not only is the breadth of South Africa’s deposits unique, so too is its geology. The geothermal gradient (i.e. the rate at which temperature goes up with depth) is lower in South Africa than elsewhere (50°F/km versus 77°F/km), thus permitting mine depths not seen anywhere else in the world. This results in potentially more difficult and challenging work conditions, as the deeper the mine, the narrower they become. Other potential mining hazards include the presence of silica dust. The dust is a by-product of the drilling in the mines, but if not wet down properly and frequently with water, it enters the miners’ lungs and can lead to silicosis, a lethal disease. Proper mine ventilation is also needed for controlling silica dust. In addition, temperature controls are needed to maintain comfortable work conditions. When geothermal gradients are high, the intake air must be cooled to maintain tolerable working conditions. Underground air refrigeration is energy-intensive, and this can pose a significant challenge in a country that until recently consumed more energy than it had the capacity to produce. The South African government is requiring mining companies to adopt better working conditions; and mining unions continue to demand improvements in unsafe working conditions, particularly after a highly publicized incident in 2007 in which 3200 workers were trapped in a mine – fortunately, no deaths resulted in that event. In sum, it can be said that if legal mining poses significant risks to miners and if working conditions are simply “tolerable”, then these pale in comparison to the risks and working conditions that illegal miners face.
Who are the illegal miners in South Africa? They are often illegal immigrants, largely from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho or other central and southern African nations that come to South Africa in search of striking it rich, or at the very least, making a decent living. In South Africa, the illegal miners are often referred to as the Zama Zamas, a term that means “trying your luck”. These immigrants come to South Africa to earn a living with the hopes of remitting earnings back to their families in their respective homelands.
Some illegal miners are South Africans who view illegal mining as a dangerous, albeit potentially remunerative activity. Some of the South African illegal miners can be described as “legal miners by day, yet illegal by night.” In other words, they might be gainfully employed by a mining firm and work legitimately for the company during the day shift, but re-enter the mine when evening falls to bolster their income. These individuals are particularly useful to a group of illegal miners given their familiarity with the mine and its risks. It is also quite possible that the South African illegal miners are unemployed mineworkers that were previously laid off by the mining companies when they were forced to retrench as a result of increasing global competitive pressures. Alternatively, illegal mineworkers may simply be young, black South Africans (without any previous mining experience) seeking a living in a nation that has struggled to reach its potential in the post-apartheid era and where one out of four South Africans is unemployed.
Regardless of the nationality or the motivations that landed the illegal miners in this role, one thing is certain: it is not an easy life. Illegal miners may break into the very mines they work in by day, or often work in abandoned or disused mine shafts. (Disused mine shafts are mines that legitimate mining companies are in the process of closing down because they are no longer economically viable, but where the firms are awaiting final permits issued by the government to “officially” close the mine. Mining companies complain that all too frequently, the government-issued permit is delayed for months, thus exacerbating the illegal mining problem.)
The miners often align themselves with a group of miners united in their illegal search of striking it rich. There is power in numbers. Being part of a group offers protection from rival factions of illegal mine workers, and fosters some level of camaraderie as the freelance miners ‘watch over’ one another. Since illegal miners are typically not employees of any business, nor members of any union and often times, not even citizens of South Africa, it can be said, that if it wasn’t for these informal groups, the miners would have no one else with even an ounce of their interests in mind. The groups generally work for a leader (a “kingpin”) who organizes runners to bring food and drinks to them, while the “miners” stay underground, some times for days – and even months – at a time. Illegal miners often run the risk of falling prey to other serious crimes. Illegal miners’ lives have been threatened – and lost – when they have refused to relinquish the deftly collected gold particles in their possession to thieves. Deaths, however, often go unreported, and as a result, there is no way of knowing how many illegal miners lose their lives each year. Only when there is a more visible event – such as a fire that went out of control in an abandoned mineshaft in 2009, killing 76 people, is a light shed on the plight and the working conditions of these workers.