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South Africa’s modern-day gold rush

28 August 2015

By Commissioner Janet Love, SAHRC Commissioner for Environment, Natural Resources & Rural Development; and Researcher Angela Kariuki
eGoli! The “Place of Gold”, the popular nickname adopted for Johannesburg in its formative years, is the economic hub of the country and the continent, generating a large percentage of South Africa’s GDP. The province in which it falls, Gauteng, is responsible for at least a quarter of the country’s total mineral production – the bulk of this being gold.
Johannesburg, which was once made up farming veld, owes its current success as a thriving cosmopolitan city, despite not being situated along any water resource or coastline, to the discovery of gold in the 19th century and the subsequent gold rush.
Several decades of large scale mining later, Johannesburg is still known as the Place of Gold, the glittering city to which millions have migrated in the hope of improving their livelihoods. Gold mining in Johannesburg has since slowed down, for a variety of reasons, with many mines closing their gates, declaring the sites as no longer profitable to continue operations.
The Johannesburg cityscape is the evidence of this historic gold production and trade: dotted with tailings and mine dumps, yellowish hills and mountains of waste gold bearing ore. These silent testimonies are a reminder both of the power that gold production had on Johannesburg and its environs during the apartheid era and the residual impact that it continues to have. They underscore the power wielded by those who controlled its production and trade, and the stresses that legacy of its dust has left on surrounding communities. eGoli, the epicentre of trade and commercial growth, is today a city of stark inequalities with mining host communities left to fend for themselves in difficult socio-economic and environmental conditions, a mining industry that is seemingly insulated from many of governance structures, and mineral wealth that has failed to enable the miners who toiled underground to advance and live better lives.
In a Business Day article, dated 6 August 2015, an affirmation that mining remains South Africa’s biggest foreign currency earner was made. The article stated that mining accounts for about 18% of gross domestic product and 60% of exports, and employs around 500,000 people. But it is in decline. With the slowdown of the large scale gold mining sector in the last decade, a different and growing mining phenomenon has emerged in the Place of Gold, and elsewhere in the country – that of unlawful artisanal mining.
Over the last few years, incidents involving unlawful artisanal miners has drawn both national and international attention (and have been reported on widely by media houses). In August 2015, reports across Johannesburg described a stand-off between the police and unlawful artisanal miners at an old mine shaft in Daveyton, East of Johannesburg. In the West Rand, similar activities are happening on a daily basis. Further afield in the mining village of Blyvooruitzicht, the situation has been almost impossible to contain, especially with artisanal miners also fighting amongst themselves. A debate is currently raging across the country in social, environmental, political, and human rights circles over how to manage a burgeoning unlawful mining business in South Africa.
What is “illegal mining”? This type of mining is referred to as ‘unlawful’ partly because it is does not take place clearly within the frameworks of existing South African laws. It involves informal miners, known locally as “zama zamas”, who manually extract metals (and in some cases other stones and sand) from old, disused, unsafe, abandoned mines; from operational and semi-operational mines, and from tailings dams and dumps. It occurs not only in Gauteng, but elsewhere across the country. Zama zamas, who often reside in areas that have literally developed atop of and adjacent to closed or abandoned gold mines, operate in treacherous conditions in derelict and crumbling tunnels. They expose themselves and the communities in which they operate to mercury and other poisonous gases in their gold amalgamation and extraction activities. For them, it means being able to have a hot meal in the evening.  It is then a way to survive on the basis of a hard day’s work. They are without any other potential for alternative livelihoods and turn to unlawful mining to eke out a living.
Unlawful mining in South Africa presents both a threat and an untapped opportunity. The government and the SAPS, in collaboration with other bodies and agencies, have tried to clamp down on unlawful miners and eradicate the activity through all levels of the value chain. Their rationale is that unlawful mining constitutes the theft of precious metals and is linked to organised crime. From a human rights perspective, the social, health, and environmental impacts of unlawful artisanal mining activities, have serious consequences particularly for the right to life and the right to security.
The emerging unlawful artisanal mining phenomenon, the “contemporary zama zama gold rush” if you will, has some elements of history repeating itself and it is unlikely that enforcement will succeed to bring it to an end. Unlawful mining, in its current form, is leading to an increased state of environmental degradation in South Africa, with a cost that has yet to be quantified. South Africa has been witnessing an increase in zama zamas who are now from other countries. Some of these people are miners who were actively recruited from neighbouring countries and have been retrenched. Little is known about the size and scope of the involvement of foreign nationals in unlawful mining. However, with an already dire socio-economic situation and a history of xenophobia, it is likely that when turf wars break out between local and foreign national zama zamas this will lead to further violence meted against non-South African Africans. There is a poor understanding of the profile of the zama zama. Not all zama zamas are involved in criminal syndicates. Not all host mining communities have the same views around zama zama mining activity. And not all foreign nationals are ‘illegal immigrants’.
The absence of policy and regulation for this type of artisanal mining in South Africa indicates a number of missed opportunities to enable artisanal mining/self-employment activities and to explore how mining in general can be more inclusive of the artisanal sector. There are opportunities tocreate partnerships between artisanal miners, on the one hand, and large scale mining and formal smaller mining operations on the other. This could enable a more comprehensive effort to and remove organised crime and tax evasion. The lack of policy seriously undermines environmental health and local safety.
The task of regulating artisanal gold mining on a country-wide scale is daunting but not impossible. Good practice examples (and lessons) of regulated artisanal mining sectors in other regions including on the continent are documented in the literature, and South Africa would do well to draw from these examples. Collaborative (government, civil society, and international organisations) engagement with and support to these miners and affected communities would go some way to creating awareness and to mitigate negative impacts (such as the dangers associated with using mercury). It could also contribute to the economy through enabling unemployed workers to use their skills and to employ themselves.
There is a growing recognition by those in government and the mining industry that there needs to be a more holistic approach to addressing issues and challenges in relation to unlawful artisanal mining. Without any comprehensive framework for improving the practices of unlawful miners, the current characterisation simply as “illegal”, will have the effect of making such activities more dangerous rather than causing them to disappear. Arresting or deportation will not deter or prevent.
We may not have all the answers and the questions and solutions will differ from one mineral to the next. But we will only progress if we recognise the need to do better, to do things differently, and to embrace and include as many as possible into a working economy.

Janet Love is SAHRC Commissioner responsible for Environment, Natural Resources, and Rural Development. Angela Kariuki is the Researcher at the SAHRC.

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