Lethal toll of informal gold mining

While deaths on formal mines have come down, zama-zama fatalities have gone up

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Photo of informal mine
Informal mine in Mpumalanga.

On the night of August 25, 2015, a group of men crawled down into an abandoned gold mineshaft in Grootvlei, 50 kilometres east of Johannesburg.

These men were zama-zamas, informal gold miners, and it was the start of a dangerous and illegal work shift.

At some point during the night, a fire was set at an entrance to the warren of tunnels. Toxic smoke spread throughout the mine, choking and poisoning the men. Without safety equipment or outside support, around 15 miners perished that night from fumes and lack of oxygen, NewsDay reported.

Over the course of the next three weeks, emergency services were at the scene of four other deadly mining incidents – including gun battles and a generator explosion. During those weeks, at least 53 miners perished, all within 50 kilometres of Johannesburg. Many of their unnamed corpses remained buried below the surface.

Just four months after this rash of zama-zama deaths, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) proclaimed some good news at a January 2016 press conference in Pretoria. Fatalities in the formal mining sector in 2015 numbered only 77, making it the least deadly year on record.

But the DMR’s numbers do not tell the full story of mining deaths in South Africa. These tallies omit the rising death toll of the informal gold mining industry that runs parallel to the formal sector. Despite government efforts to crack down on this illegal form of mining, the South African Chamber of Mines and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) declare that the practice is on the rise.

Informal mining is dangerous. No official records are publicly available to track the extent of life lost, but an analysis we have done of media coverage reveals how widespread and fatal it is. As the government was heralding improvements in mine safety, zama-zamas were dying in scores, either from accidents or from mining-related violence between police, security guards and most frequently, other miners. In 2012, the media reported 37 informal mining deaths. By 2015, that number was up to 124 - far more than the official number of mining fatalities for that year. That’s a more than 150 percent increase in reported informal mining deaths from just three years before. To compare, trade publication Mining Weekly reported only eight deaths from informal mining in 2008.

In all, from 2012 to 2015, at least 312 miners informally working in mines died because of it, the analysis shows - during a period when all levels of government had repeatedly pledged to ensure safety, peace and the rule of law in the mining sector.

In June 2009, a fire broke out underground in a closed section of Harmony Gold Mining’s Eland shaft in the Free State. Eventually 91 dead were counted in the shaft, according to the Harmony’s official count. The accident led to authorities launching high-profile initiatives to attempt to grapple with illegal mining, emphasizing arresting and prosecuting zama-zamas.

The deadly trend only worsened, with an increase in reports of illegal mining accidents and conflicts in 2014 and 2015. This sparked the SAHRC to conduct an official investigation into unregulated artisanal mining activities. The resulting report found the responsible agencies to be too focused on eliminating informal mining rather than working towards solutions. “The social, health, and environmental impacts of unregulated [mining] activities in South Africa have serious consequences for the rights to life and security,” the report concluded.

South African Police Service and DMR declined interviews for this investigation. But Chris Molebatsi, community activist and Monitor with the Bench Marks Foundation, said, “People are being persecuted merely because they are poor, not because they are doing anything illegal.” To him, the government’s efforts are not effective in stopping loss of life because they ignore the systemic problems underlying the informal industry.

The calls of advocates and the conclusions of the August 2015 SAHRC report have not seemed to change the course of official responses. At a September 2015 oversight committee meeting, Deputy Director-General of Mineral Regulation Joel Raphela told the committee that peace and stability in the mining sector had improved. He added that the country ought to be aware that “the sector was moving out from a regrettable past, which involved loss of lives.”

He did not mention the 98 lives already lost to informal mining that year.

“More Blatant, More Destructive”

Once the world’s top gold producing country, South Africa now ranks in sixth place worldwide, despite the fact that it still holds the second largest gold reserves. As the once successful mining industry eroded, it shed around 47,000 jobs between 2012 and 2015, according to the Chamber of Mines. Ex-goldmine workers, many with no professional skills besides mining, had few options for work in a country where unemployment is over 26%.

As the industry struggles, thousands of mines sit empty. Some were abandoned completely by previous owners, often without much care taken to secure or limit access. That leaves the DMR with the responsibility for security and maintenance of 6,000 “derelict and ownerless” mines. In many cases, the mineral reserves are not depleted – the mines are simply sitting unmaintained while owners wait for the cost of extraction to become profitable.

The confluence of joblessness, easy access to unprotected mines and a surge in the price of gold around 2000 led to a second gold rush for unemployed miners. A new informal market opened for anyone with the knowledge, stamina and desperation to head into shuttered mines and haul out gold-bearing rock by the bucket-full. The SAHRC estimates that informal mining has involved 30,000 people over the past ten years.

An informal miner rests at the entrance to a mine.

Our analysis of reported informal gold mining deaths since 2012 provides insight into the lives and deaths of the zama-zama. When reports included names and nationalities, the victims were overwhelmingly men and foreign nationals, primarily from Lesotho and Zimbabwe. This squares with Chamber of Mines’ estimates that up to 70 percent of zama-zamas are undocumented immigrants. They came to South Africa to work for the gold companies, but as mining jobs dry up they end up with no choice but to ply their trade illegally.

Back in 2013, most reported informal mining deaths were from accidents like rock-falls or carbon-monoxide poisoning. But by 2015, 66% of reported zama-zama deaths were murders, often allegedly perpetrated by other informal miners.

Over the last four years, the overwhelming majority of the reported deaths took place in Gauteng. But of the 35 deaths already reported in 2016, 26 were in Free State, indicating a trend away from the abandoned mines of Gauteng into the still-operating mines further afield. This may be because the gold is getting harder to find and access, so zama-zamas are increasingly trying to dig in active mines.

“I’m not sure illegal mining has increased. It has just become more blatant, more destructive, because the easy pickings are gone.” says Lloyd Birrell, CEO of Birrell Mining. Birrell Mining owns Klipwal Mine, where five zama-zamas died in a rock fall in April 2016.

The actual number of fatalities is likely higher. Our dataset was built only on English-language media sources for which there were available records dating back to 2012. More broadly, many deaths go unreported. Every person interviewed for this investigation indicated that the numbers reported are significantly lower than the actual number of fatalities, perhaps by more than 50%.

Under the earth’s surface, scores of bodies remain trapped by rock. Their corpses remain where they fell, either because conditions are too unsafe for recovery or because those who know of their deaths are too scared to report it.

“They are afraid of everything,” Molebatsi observed. “Half of the time, they don’t have the papers to be in South Africa. If they are South African, they likely don’t know their rights.” If they report a death in a mine, they fear police will arrest them and fill in the shaft, blocking their source of livelihood.

“There must be another way”

The cost of informal mining is frequently calculated, by the government, mining industry and press in terms of financial loss rather than loss of life. The Chamber of Mines estimates that illegal mining costs the already struggling gold industry up to R6 billion a year in lost revenue. Then there are the costs of beefing up security or securing abandoned mines. The South African Institute of International Affairs estimates that it would cost the government R40 billion to rehabilitate all the abandoned mines.

According to Birrell, the real cost of illegal mining is not the lost gold. That’s “nothing in the real scheme of things.” The real cost is the attendant damage to mine infrastructure. “Illegal damage to the mines is probably 50 times greater than the actual gold loss,” Birrell estimates. Enough infrastructure damage will sterilize a mine, leaving it too unsafe to work. “That’s immense,” Birrell said. “We as a country are standing by and watching an entire infrastructure be totally destroyed.”

After the 2009 disaster at Harmony Mine, the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources established Provincial Illegal Mining Stakeholder Forums to improve coordination in addressing illegal mining. The forums developed strategies focused on blocking entrances to abandoned mines, encouraging mine owners to heighten security and increasing convictions for those caught mining illegally.

Ever since, official response to informal mining has emphasised criminalising miners. A DMR representative to the SAHRC noted that the DMR is “sympathetic to the socio-economic conditions driving the activity of illegal mining, but its view is that if it is socially unacceptable for someone to steal from a shop, why should illegal mining activities be allowed?” What’s more, due to its unregulated informal nature and ties to the black market, mining is often linked to other serious crimes, including corruption, undocumented immigration, child labour, and, as our analysis highlights, murder. In many cases zama-zamas are the victims in these crimes, too.

There are no specific laws on informal mining. Instead, zama-zamas get charged with operating without a permit, trespassing or being in possession of unwrought gold (illegal under the Precious Metals Act of 2005.) “The sanctions for illegal mining are virtually non-existent, they might as well not be there,” notes Birrell. He argues that for people as desperate as zama-zamas, the sentence of a fine and a few months in jail is hardly a deterrent.

The Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources joined with stakeholders to develop a new strategy in September 2014. According to meeting minutes, DMR Deputy Minister Godfrey Oliphant said the department wanted to see “stability” in the fight against illegal mining that month, with the goal of total eradication of the practice by February 2015.

Instead, by February 2015 at least another 24 zama-zamas had died.

Even when mines are secured, zama-zamas can find a way in. Here is a makeshift entrance, with a garden hose used as rope.

The Chamber of Mines promotes a solution that focuses on the supply and demand side of informal mining, which means addressing all levels of the criminal syndicates that play a role in it, not just the zama-zamas. But Neil Metzer, Security Coordinator at the Chamber of Mines, recognises that there “are limited resources at the disposal of law enforcement agencies to stem illegal artisanal mining.”

The problem with focusing on criminalisation is that it requires a massive amount of manpower and resources to find, apprehend and prosecute all those involved. For mine owners like Birrell, that means the responsibility of stopping informal mining falls on their shoulders. “The government’s not doing anything to stop it,” Birrell said. “The South African Police do not have the capability to stop the illegals.”

Kgothatso Nhlengetwa, a mining geologist researching artisanal mining at the Wits University, agrees that the criminalisation approach is not effective. If you catch 100 Zama-Zamas, 100 more will take their place,” she said. “There must be another way.”

Bench Marks Foundation and the Chamber of Mines suggest that the other way is to legalise and regulate artisanal mining. They recognise that not all zama-zamas are dangerous criminals; many are just small-scale entrepreneurs using the resources available to them to make a living. Because of lack of oversight, their lives are in danger and criminal syndicates exploit them. What’s more, the SAHRC report indicated that these syndicates are in cahoots with legitimate companies, and even police, who exploit the labour and vulnerability of the informal miners.

“Some artisanal mining, even where unlawful in current circumstances, has the potential to become beneficial to communities if properly regulated,” said Metzer. Regulation would allow tax collection on artisanal mining and would undermine the crime syndicates. Perhaps most importantly, regulation will allow the government to ensure safety and prevent further deaths.

Regulation would not be without difficulties. The National Coordination Strategic Management Team submitted to the SAHRC that it was “of the opinion that to introduce such a regulatory environment would bring even more problems because it is not clear who will monitor and enforce these instruments.” As it is, the government struggles to regulate the existing large-scale mining industry. Zama-zamas may even resist regulation, as it could cut into profits and restrain their activities.

The biggest factor working against legalisation might be geology itself. Nhlengetwa’s research suggests that quality surface gold is becoming depleted, making informal surface mining more difficult and less profitable. “The only way to make them safer is to formalise them,” says Nhlengetwa. “But when you look at what they are mining, it’s not viable.” So zama-zamas turn to active mines, where there is still gold and the infrastructure to access it.

For Birrell, that means companies like his must continue to dissuade zama-zamas in every legal way possible – an endless game of whack-a-mole. Instead, Birrell Mines is trying a new approach. It is launching a new project to employ local zama-zamas as contractors. If successful, it could be a model for similar projects at other mines.

In the meantime, government’s focus remains on criminalisation. In September 2015, President Zuma announced that 761 people were arrested for crimes on mining property since 2012. The DMR had also “enforced municipal by-laws, established the Mine Crime Combating Forum and improved case management and capacity to speed up prosecutions.”

Informal mining continues to be a thorn in the side of law enforcement and the mining industry, but the human cost is too often overlooked. Already in 2016, there have been reports of 35 deaths. Nameless and forgotten, these are the few whose deaths have even been reported. As with the tragedy in 2009, that number could triple with just one big accident. At a press conference in 2014, National Union of Mines general secretary Frans Baleni warned: “There is going to be a big disaster one day.”

Cecilia Johnson conducted all research and analysis for this article, including finding archive material. All the graphs were generated by her. All photos by Spencer Johnson.

See also Rough Diamonds: an investigation into illicit diamond mining in Namaqualand

TOPICS:  Human Rights Mining Unemployment

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