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State failed to stop ‘savage’ zama zamas

Government has ignored several dire warnings about the effects of what has been described as a “savage” and “detrimental” illegal mining industry whose practices have now sparked violent protests.

In the wake of the alleged horrific gang rape of eight women who were taking part in a music video shoot near Krugersdorp on Gauteng’s West Rand, it has emerged that the authorities were repeatedly warned that illegal mining in the country was a ticking time bomb. However, no decisive steps had been taken to address the crisis.

As recently as March, Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke reported that there were 6 100 abandoned mines belonging to the department of mineral resources and energy. 

August 03.2022. SAPS conducted a raid at the West Village mine tailings in Krugersdorp sezing the equipment and destroying the make shift structures that the Zamazama’s were operating under. . Photo: Tebogo Letsie :

He warned the department to speed up the management and rehabilitation of abandoned mines, as they “posed serious health, safety and environmental hazards for nearby communities”.

A separate study conducted by the Legal Resources Centre, the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) and the International Labour, Research and Information Group made several proposals last year regarding the draft artisanal and small-scale policy.

These organisations set up a coalition that began at the end of 2019. They held consultations with the department of mineral resources and energy and other civil society organisations.

In their submission to the department, they pointed out that unregulated artisanal mining extracted minerals from old, disused and abandoned mines, usually under dangerous conditions.

After its own study into the industry, Minerals Council SA put in R2.5 billion to protect mines belonging to its members.

The council, formerly known as the SA Chamber of Commerce, is an employers’ organisation that supports and promotes the local mining industry.

Alan Seccombe, spokesperson for the council, said security was a major concern for its 78 members who had been directly and indirectly affected by criminal activities.

Seccombe said they were working closely with the security cluster to combat such activities. 

August 03.2022. Bags filled with gold ore seen in a pit as the SAPS conducted a raid at the West Village mine tailings in Krugersdorp seizing the equipment and destroying the make shift structures that the Zama zamas were operating under. . Photo: Tebogo Letsie

However, he admitted that the council did not have data on how many people were involved in illegal mining.

“It’s an opaque, complex activity,” said Seccombe.

For that reason, he said, it was also difficult to put a monetary value to zama zama mining activity.

He said there were company-specific agreements entered into with the department of mineral resources and energy as part of the mining licence and rehabilitation obligations when a company wanted to close down a mine.

The council’s members were bound by their mining rights and closure was subject to the department’s regulations.

Seccombe referred City Press to the department for further details. By the time of going to press, the department had not responded to questions sent to it.

The Auditor-General’s report would not have been complete without the cooperation of the department of mineral resources and energy, which provided critical data.

Although the department had the data available, there is no evidence that it acted on the information, despite the warnings.


According to the Auditor-General’s report, there were 6 100 abandoned mines (also known as derelict and ownerless mines) belonging to the department of mineral resources and energy – information that was part of an audit conducted by the department last year.

These mines included 261 asbestos mines and 2 322 others considered to be high-risk mines that held gold, coal and copper.

August 03.2022. IFP, ANC,DA, ActionSA and EFF members came to picket outside the Krugersdorp Magistrate Court where a group of Zama zamas appeared trying to force their way inside the court when they were told the space is already full inside. Photo: Tebogo Letsie

The Auditor-General wrote that the department of mineral resources and energy had conducted its first audit in 2009, which indicated at the time that it managed 5 906 abandoned mines.

The report stated that, before the 2009 audit, the department of mineral resources and energy had rehabilitated five asbestos mines. From 2009 to last year, 27 additional asbestos mines had been rehabilitated.

“To date, none of the 2 322 other high-risk commodity mines has been rehabilitated,” the Auditor-General found.

He found the rehabilitation process to be ineffective in that it had failed to address environmental, social and health concerns.


The study done by the Legal Resource Centre, the BMF and the International Labour, Research and Information Group was also shared with the department of mineral resources and energy.

The department has acknowledged having perused the contents of the study and says it stated that most mined resources in artisanal mining were gold, diamonds and sand.

At the time, artisanal mining was recorded to have taken place in seven provinces.

After 1994, the study stated, there was hope that poor and marginalised indigenous people would be able to benefit from the economy to alleviate poverty after apartheid.

Large-scale mining had dominated the industry.

“Artisanal mining was seen as a way to alleviate poverty and for individuals to become financially independent,” the study read.

However, it added that this was not the case, as the mining laws enacted after 1994 had not provided regulations for artisanal mining.

The study stated that the majority of artisanal miners were illegally mining due to their inability to access a mining permit or mining right because of financial constraints.

This means that the status quo from apartheid still exists. Large mining companies remain dominant, with poor and marginalised individuals unable to enter the market due to the unaffordability of a mining permit.

“The only other alternative is to engage in illegal artisanal mining,” the study noted.


The three organisations’ study stated that, in 2008, the world had experienced an economic crisis that had pushed up the price of gold. That crisis had led to a higher unemployment rate in South Africa, which – in turn – had increased artisanal mining.

According to the study, there was a direct correlation between retrenchments of mine workers and increases in informal artisanal mining.

One of the factors causing the retrenchments was the mechanisation of mines, which offered the advantage of safer working conditions, but had led to workers being replaced by machinery.

Other factors were mine closures and the search for higher profits.

One of the companies affected by illegal mining activities is Village Main Reef, which yesterday released a detailed analysis on how the scourge had affected it.

Director Raisaka Masebelanga said: “The genesis of the ‘zama zama’ term is that of a victimless crime and they might possibly be seen as ‘honest hustlers’ who are survivalists and the salt of the earth, but nothing could be further from the truth, because they have a vicious, almost savage and detrimental effect on local, provincial and national economic development.”

He added that an investigation by the company showed that “the so-called zama zamas have accomplices even within legitimate mining concerns which are still operational”.

Dirk van Zyl, head of security at Village Main Reef, said 204 mine employees had been disciplined for assisting so-called zama zamas to gain illegal access to legitimate mines, where they could steal gold.

Van Zyl said: 

To date, 614 zama zamas have been arrested underground, 11 illegal gold plants have been destroyed underground and the [disciplinary] operation will continue to combat the zama zama issues.

“Numerous bodies were found during the past 18 months between the different non-operational Buffelsfontein gold mine shafts.”

These cases, he said, had been reported to the Stilfontein Police Station for further investigation.


Luphert Chilwane of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) told City Press that several warnings had been issued by the union to government relating to the “big disaster” that was coming involving illegal mining, but these had been ignored.

“Government failed to improve on its intelligence. Illegal miners are [persistent] and the network’s big. They smoke all sorts of drugs and commit underground killings, and process gold. The competition’s too big,” said Chilwane.

He said the union had at some point suggested regulation of illegal mining to ensure that those involved could be identified and held responsible, according to legislation, if things went wrong.

Regulations would also ensure that the miners paid taxes and contributed to the broader economy.

“The NUM also pushed for the proper closure of disused mines, but was ignored too,” he said.

Chilwane said a special police task team needed to be established to focus on illegal mining activities.

Meanwhile, despite the police focusing on cracking down on illegal miners on the West Rand, where last week’s terrifying robberies and gang rapes took place, the scourge of the zama zamas is widespread. 

August 03.2022. IFP, ANC,DA, ActionSA and EFF members picketing outside the Krugersdorp Magistrate Court where a group of Zama zamas appeared on rape, illegal immigration and illegal mining suspicions. Photo: Tebogo Letsie

In recent weeks, the corpses of people who died or were killed at some of the disused mines in the Langlaagte/Riverlea area were found abandoned on the side of Main Reef Road, the arterial road that connects the east to the west.

Zama zama activity has long been established in eastern towns such as Benoni, where residents have complained for years about being assaulted and harassed by men who use abandoned mines as springboards from which to launch attacks on communities.

In March last year, residents of Benoni signed a petition calling for various government departments (including home affairs and the department of mineral resources and energy) to intervene after different zama zama gangs began fighting with each other.

Ward 27 councillor Lornette Joseph told News24 at the time: “Several areas have residents reporting hearing explosives every single day. They have zama zamas operating close to their homes and the environment’s been badly damaged. Government needs to address illegal mining.”

A year later, not much has changed. If the zama zamas are not fighting each other, they are on the rampage harassing and robbing local communities.

Residents have given up reporting attacks to the police, as their complaints have never been followed up on. The zama zamas are well armed and have been engaged in numerous gunfights with both the police and private security companies assigned to protect abandoned mines.



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