Mantashe unveils plans for “specialised police unit” as Govt seeks to curb illegal mining

Gwede Mantashe, mines and energy minister, South Africa

SOUTH Africa’s mines and energy minister Gwede Mantashe said today his government would establish a “specialised police unit” aimed at curbing illegal mining estimated to have cost the mining industry R49bn in 2019.

“It is our considered view that illegal mining is a criminal activity which must be dealt with within the prescripts of the law,” said Mantashe in a speech to Parliament today. “Hence, we have been engaging with the Ministry of Police to establish a specialised police unit to deal with this criminal activity,” he said.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and the South African Police Service (SAPS) had been “working closely” to design the proposed unit. “The Ministry of Police will at an appropriate time make the necessary announcements regarding the establishment of this unit,” he said.

The unit is expected to be “multi-disciplinary” and will draw from skills in other departments, he said. “It will need to have the ability to detect, combat and investigate these crimes.”

SAPS used to have a diamonds, gold, and precious stones unit aimed specifically at tackling organised crime in the country’s minerals sector until it was closed by former police commissioner, the late Jackie Selebi. The South African Policing Union (SAPU) called for its reinstatment last month.

Illegal mining was “an existential threat” to the mining sector, Mantashe said.

Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater said last month that the increased incidence of illegal mining in South Africa, perpetrated by people referred to locally as ‘zama-zamas, required the support of the country’s military.

He added that intervention was required at a high level owing to the sophisticated nature of illegal mining activities.

“We have requested special assistance from the police. It won’t be solved by dealing with the obvious issue of illegal miners; we have to address the syndicates and deal with this internationally, and stop focusing on individuals that are abused at the lower end of illegal mining,” said Froneman.

In 2020, the Minerals Council South Africa estimated that seven tons of gold – from total national production of about 135 tons – is lost each year to illegal mining, which is driven by the joblessness and economic hardship that prevail across the country.

Copper cable theft

The council said today that syndicated crime targeting minerals freight through copper cable theft, as well as Eskom were “sabotaging the economy”. The mining sector lost revenue of R35bn in 2021 because rail deliveries of minerals fell short of targeted tonnages,” the council said in a statement today.

While it supported efforts by the security cluster to tackle illegal mining with improved policing and intelligence-driven initiatives, it called on Government to form “a well-resourced and dedicated mining police task force focused on mining-related crimes”.

Mantashe linked illegal mining to the influx of undocumented migrants in South Africa as well as an estimated 6,100 derelict and ownerless mines requiring R49bn in rehabilitation capital. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy receives R140m annually for the rehabiliation of mines, he said.

Government was “committed” to eliminating illegal mining, said Mantashe. “To do this, we must arrest, prosecute, and convict both the flies (illegal miners) and tigers (leaders of syndicates),” he said.

ANC unable to put action into words

Mines and energy shadow minister James Lorimer expressed doubts as to the ability of Government to make any in-roads on illegal mining. In his speech to Parliament today he said the ANC was “congentially” unable to put “words into action”.

Urgent changes had to be made to legislation as illegal miners were currently only being charged with trespass. “70 of the miners arrested at Krugersdorp have only been charged with being in the country illegally, because there’s no other law to charge them with,” Lorimer said.

There was a national outcry after it emerged that eight female models were raped on July 28 when a television crew filming a music video at a mine dump near Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, was attacked by heavily armed men though to be illegal miners.

A mob subsequently attacked alleged illegal miners with machetes, golf clubs and hammers following the incident.