Spotlight on local illegal mining

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GK CRONJE

10 August 2022

Recently, an excavator has also been offloaded at Ding Dong, which proves the defiance of these operations that flies directly in the face of the law.

Suzuki Ermelo (WEB) 22 September 2020.jp

Zama zama, a colloquial term which stems from Zulu, means “to try again” or “take a chance.” The term refers to artisanal (zama zama) miners that conduct illegal mining. Following the harrowing ordeal in Krugersdorp which involved illegal miners, both national and international scrutiny is on authorities, who are expected to pull up their socks and deal with the illegal mining scourge. Mpumalanga is especially rife with artisanal mining activity, with a surprising amount of these miners located in the immediate vicinity of Ermelo. Due to the entrance fee and security risks, artisanal mining is a dangerous method of making a living, with low-level miners often being misused and underpaid by ruthless kingpins and syndicates.

It is estimated that more than six thousand of these illegal miners are underground nationwide, at any given time. In some areas, the illegal mining operations are dominated by immigrants who have entered illegally from neighboring countries, using violence and intimidation as a controlling force. Of the 400 abandoned coal mines across the country, Ermelo has been pointed as a troubling area, where abandoned mines lures crime, opportunity and many accidental deaths. Many if these deaths and injuries go unreported, due to undocumented immigrants, and the illegality of these mining operations. The long abandoned, and unrehabilitated Imbabala and Golfview mines, amongst others, have long been a topic of discussion. These sites still have open shafts, large bodies of water, extensive wash plant equipment and a number of deserted, multi-million Rand machines left behind. While the illegal mining is as clear as day, no official presence on the part of Msukaligwa Local Municipality, the mine, the SAPS or the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) can be seen. The SAPS has, however, told the Tribune that organized sting operations with all roleplayers are required at sites such as these, with the involvement of provincial and national authorities, and that the SAPS can not act as lone gunmen in this regard. Certain protocol needs to be adhered to before action can be taken.

Load after load of coal and other minerals are packed on to coal trucks, who in turn head off to their illicit destinations. Some of these illegal operations have unbranded mining vehicles in their employ. The incapacity or unwillingness of authorities to step in may be the cause, while it may be considered that wide scale payoffs take place in order to have authorities avert their eyes. Mpumalanga is, after all, known for its rampant and blatant corruption.

Unfortunately, these illegal activities and unrehabilitated mines have serious implications for the environment, food production and proper management of water resources in these areas. The additional issue is the unregulated and illicit nature of the mining often brings about violence, corruption, and turf warfare. Rival miners have been known to fight over profitable territory, rob fellow miners and trap one another in the mines to deter competition. Complaints from the community have also been a matter of interest, where it is alleged that these artisanal miners lure violent behavior to neighborhoods. Case en point, on Sunday evening, 7 August 2022, at approximately 18:30, reports had been received of approximately five bakkies that had cordoned off the entrance to the illegal mining sites. These bakkies seemingly prevented the heavy vehicles from entering and exiting the sites. According to the source, visible tension between the parties could be seen, which indicates that the nationwide crackdown on illegal mining sites are already putting pressure on the artisanal miners in the Ermelo region. The tension is expected to increase as authorities are poised to move from Gauteng towards Mpumalanga in the bid to halt the spread of these artisanal miners.

Mine collapses and rock falls have also killed hundreds of artisanal miners, due to the lack of support structures within these mines. The local SAPS is, understandably, unwilling to take the considerable risk required to go into the deep mines to confront these miners. The local illegal sites, named Ayoba, Ding Dong and Estepiseni, are crawling with literally hundreds of artisanal miners, coal trucks, bakkies, trucks and other vehicles, all vying for a slice of the illicit pie. Recently, an excavator has also been offloaded at Ding Dong, which proves the defiance of these operations that flies directly in the face of the law. One of the mines stretch underground for nearly 600 meters, with nary a support pillar in place. Surrounding areas are also being independently investigated for signs of illegal mining, where at least one suspicious site had been noted on the N11, approximately 5KM from Ermelo.

A reliable source has told the Tribune that these illegal mines pose a major concern, especially for surrounding power plants. According to the source, the sub-standard product mined from these sites, known as duff coal, are mixed with other coal at yards in Middelburg and Witbank, and these loads are subsequently transported to local power plants. The sub-standard nature of the coal causes damage to Eskom generators and equipment. The Tribune has also received reliable information that drivers who transport these dubious loads, are paid up to R20 000 cash for delivering a single loads to a designated point. For the more daring drivers, an offer of more than R40 000 per load stands if they are willing to deliver the coal directly to Eskom power plant offload sites. These figures obviously draws a pretty clear picture of the extent of these operations, and the various levels of corruption, bribery and other means of illicit activities are involved.

While the DMRE and authorities are well aware of what transpires, these sites are left to be. These artisanal miners are also at risk of contracting various pulmonary diseases from inhaling coal dust, including coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Coal miners are also exposed to crystalline silica dust, black lung, silicosis, bronchitis, and emphysema. Despite Msukaligwa Local Municipality vowing to erect fences and safeguard problematic areas after an investigation by Human Rights Watch circa 2017, to date, no action has been taken. The fact of the matter is that the situation has worsened considerably. The South African government has not taken adequate steps to ensure coal mining companies rehabilitate mine sites, despite the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) requiring companies to do so.

Improper assessments of future cleanup costs by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and a systemic lack of enforcement have left residents all contribute to the illegal activities around Ermelo, of which the top criminal dogs get away with much too easily. Of all the mine closure certificates granted by the DMRE between 2011 and 2016, only six were in Mpumalanga. Disturbingly, none of these closure certificates were for coal mines, according to Human Rights Watch. This means that, to date, Imbabala and Golfview mines have been simply abandoned, with no responsibility taken by controlling companies.

The Tribune has directed an enquiry to the DMRE regarding the activity at these mines, and have received acknowledgment of receipt from two of the seven recipients. Additional enquiries have been directed to the Ermelo SAPS, as well as both Msukaligwa Local Municipality and Gert Sibande District Municipality. The combined response from the above roleplayers, should a response be received, will be available in the next publication.