Address by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu to the National Council of Provinces on the occasion of the Debate on Illegal Mining

Thursday, September 17, 2009

MEDIA RELEASE - for immediate use

16 September 2009

Address by Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu, MP, to the National Council of Provinces on the occasion of the Debate on Illegal Mining

Honourable Members. The theft of gold and illicit mining is nothing new in South Africa. Whilst theft has been occurring since the inception of the gold mining industry, illicit mining in South Africa started gaining momentum from the late 1990s.

Illicit mining first reared its ugly head in Welkom as far back as 1999 and the Department and mining companies have been working together over the last decade to put an end to this problem - with little success.

The recent unfortunate loss of 91 illegal diggers' lives in Welkom has again brought into sharp relief the scourge of illicit mining, focussing public attention on the issue like never before. Illicit mining poses serious challenges for the industry - this issue is extremely complex and should not be underestimated.

Illegal mining is a huge, multi-billion rand criminal industry featuring national and international syndicates and valued at some R5.6-billion. These gold-smuggling syndicates are highly organised, dangerous and well-resourced. When considering the question of how these syndicates manage to transport food and other consumables deep down into the mines, it is clear that illicit miners are being assisted by legal miners, both workers and managers. Explosives and equipment are also transported and stolen from underground stores of operating mines.

Thousands of diggers, many coming from Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana, are willing to risk their lives to profit from these illegal activities. These illegal diggers are armed and dangerous and we want to send a clear message that poverty cannot be an excuse for criminal activity.

Honourable Members, I want to make it clear that all those involved in illegal mining are no different from those ruthless criminals involved in cash-in-transit heists who mercilessly kill our policemen and women.

In Barberton, Mpumalanga, illegal diggers are now taking over equipment and workplaces. They are openly carrying a huge number of weapons, including AK47's and 9mm pistols. Inter-gang fights and shootouts are now a daily occurrence in this area. Confrontations between illegal miners and the police and security personnel are becoming more frequent. Legal mineworkers have been also abducted in Barberton and used as human shields in confrontations with the police. In Welkom, booby traps have been set for the police and security personnel using explosives. Illicit mining is also spawning other illegal activities, including child prostitution and child labour.

As if this all this was not enough, good citizens who report these illegal activities to the authorities are subjected to serious threats and harassment.

These illegal activities are impacting negatively on the economy, robbing our country and its people of valuable resources which could otherwise have been used to improve the lives of our people.

The sophistication of these gold-smuggling syndicates cannot be underestimated. The so-called Zama-Zamas are the diggers, recruited from the ranks of experienced, unemployed miners, and are known to stay underground for up to a year. They protect their 'turf' from other illegal miners or threaten and attack legal miners. At another level, local gangs are also involved in, amongst others, recruitment, the supply of food and basic necessities underground, creating networks of mine officials and security who receive bribes for their support, and even providing legal support to arrested illegal miners. The local syndicates interface with the exporter, who then smuggles gold out of the country. The smuggled gold then changes hands to intermediaries or front companies and ends up with international buyers.

These illicit mining activities threaten to undermine the country's economic, social and security policies which have been coined not only for enhancing the Republic's reputation as an investment destination of choice but, also for its citizens to enjoy the fruits of our democracy.

To this end our government has taken decisive steps to ensure that we deal firmly with illegal mining.

On 2 June 2009, we visited Welkom immediately after receiving news of the first 36 deaths there to see for ourselves and get a first-hand understanding of the issue. We visited Welkom again on 13 June 2009 to discuss the issue with a wide range of role-players including the local community, municipalities, business people, mining companies and trade unions. Representatives of the South African Police Service, both national and provincial, were also in attendance.

Subsequently, we established the Free State Illegal Mining Stakeholder Forum constituted by community leaders, organised labour, the Matjhabeng municipality, mining companies, the Department of Mineral Resources, SAPS, as well as the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. Other relevant Departments are also consulted to provide assistance where necessary.

The Free State Illegal Mining Stakeholder Forum has since developed an Action Plan to eradicate illegal mining activities in the region. The Stakeholder Forum is continuously monitoring progress made on the implementation of the Action Plan by the relevant stakeholders. As a sign of the success of the forum, there are now reports that illegal miners have been migrating to the West Rand in Gauteng.

Cabinet has also noted the serious nature of the threat which illegal mining poses to the country and took a decision that the matter be attended to by the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster, the relevant structure to deal with this criminality.

We have since presented this criminal matter to the relevant Inter-Ministerial Committee which agreed, amongst others, that:
The newly-formed Hawks must take over and investigate illicit mining in its totality;
The relevant legislation must be applied without fear or favour to deal with racketeering, money laundering, illegal possession of minerals, and so on;
Investigate whether any local police and prosecutors in the relevant magisterial districts are involved in the illegal mining syndicates;
A delegation of Ministers of the JCPS Cluster, as well as the Minister of Mineral Resources, will soon visit some of the affected areas to assess for ourselves what else can be done to deal comprehensively with the issue of illicit mining.

In conclusion, Honourable Chairperson, I want to assure the National Council of Provinces that the Government of the Republic of South Africa has taken decisive steps to tackle head-on the issue of illegal mining. However, I also want to assure the criminal syndicates involved in illegal mining that our resolve to crush them has strengthened and they will continue to feel the heat as government closes in on you until you stop robbing our people of the minerals that belong to them, as per the Freedom Charter.