South Africa’s president has ordered thousands of military personnel to assist in a nationwide operation against illegal mining, an activity that is estimated to cost the country billions of dollars each year.
The president’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya announced on Thursday that 3,300 army personnel would partner with police in “an intensified anti-criminality operation against illegal mining across all provinces”.
The mission will run until April 2024 as part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “Operation Prosper” to instil law and order, he added.
Ramaphosa previously deployed the army to the Western Cape province in 2019 to fight gang violence as part of the same operation.
Economic and health threats
Illegal gold mining has been a continuing threat in South Africa for decades, with poverty, unemployment and crime driving the underground industry. The activity has hurt the country’s investment pull and cut into mining companies’ profits, mining industry representatives say.
Informal miners have been dubbed “zama zamas” – the Zulu term for people who try their luck – as they risk their lives in disused mines and rudimentary tunnels, scraped into the earth without safety measures.
A gas explosion in May killed approximately 31 miners working illegally in the city of Welkom, trapping their bodies underground. Recovery efforts were stymied by high levels of methane in the mine – and the threat of further explosions.
In July, 17 people including three children were killed in Angelo Tivani, a settlement of about 200 people just outside Johannesburg.
Estimates place the number of abandoned gold mines in the country at about 6,000, and environmentalists have warned that industrial mining has left a legacy of poverty and health problems in nearby areas.
The informal mining that has cropped up in its place has also been blamed for a rise in gang violence and turf wars, as would-be miners jockey for the best dig sites. The Institute for Security Studies estimates that at least “30,000 illegal miners work in and around thousands of disused and active mines across South Africa”.
The black market mining also poses a challenge to legally operating mines, costing them as much as 7 billion rand ($376m) annually, mining industry body Minerals Council South Africa says.
The activity also causes South Africa’s economy to lose out on tens of billions of rand in export earnings, taxes and royalties, the council estimates.