Michele du Plessis
Although many illegal miners or gold panners – Zama-Zamas as they are known- act out of economic desperation, we cannot ignore the fact that it is inter-related with organized crime.
This lucrative trade in precious metals and diamonds are related to weapon smuggling, trade in wildlife and the drug trade. Illegal mining is a criminal activity which includes trespassing and theft. It is illegal to be in possession of unwrought precious metal ore and rough diamonds without the required statutory authorization.
Illegal mining represents a major risk to themselves and employees of these illegal mining activities. They tend to use tremendously environmentally unfriendly refining methods and materials, which put their health at risk. There are illegal water usage and wastage and mercury contamination to the environment. The excavation and reopening of sealed and rehabilitated shafts, such as the old mine shafts around Sabie, may also lead to sinkholes. Underground fires and explosions is a risk to the illegal miners. Rescuing them leads to additional risk for specialized security companies and rescue teams.
Child labour, prostitution and hostage situations, where people are forced to work in these mines, is the norm. “We have found children as young as 9 years old working in the mines. Some of these children earn approximately R1000 per day. Finding prostitutes underground is also not a strange phenomenon. They earn about R3 000 per day. Cigarettes sell for R400 a packet, cooked chicken R2000. There is a lot of trade going on underground and we have found syndicate leaders with R300 000 in cash on them,” a security spokesperson who do not want to be identified said.
Zama-Zamas set ambushes and booby traps for security personnel and rival groups of miners. There is also an influx of undocumented immigrants; 90% of arrested illegal miners come from neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe. “The Zama-Zamas are normally heavily armed. Combine that with drug and alcohol abuse and you have a very volatile situation. It is a very dangerous job to search for illegal miners underground. They tend to steal more hunting rifles these days to protect these mines. We have to contend with heavily armed miners, wild animals such as leopards and snakes. There is also the risk of a mine shaft collapsing on us. This is costing the mining companies a lot of money.”
“Last year alone, the government lost nearly R9 billion in taxes. Illegal gold mining is a priority crime. I have arrested the same illegal immigrant Zama-Zama three times in one month. But every time he gets released on bail. How can an illegal immigrant be released on bail? If the SAPS and National Prosecuting Authority will do their work, and we can root out the corruption in these departments, we might just make a difference,” the security spokesperson concluded.