Kimberley licence award shifted the debate on ‘zama-zamas’

Illegal mining

After years of protests and stand-offs with police and security guards, the June victory which saw thousands of zama-zamas (artisanal and illegal miners) in Kimberley acquire a mining right is shifting the debate on artisanal mining in South Africa, highlighting its economic potential and the shortfalls in the current regulatory framework.

Artisanal mining is allowed in very specific and very limited situations in South Africa under current laws, but for all practical purposes, exceptional permission is required – but nearly impossible to get – from the minister of mineral resources in order to mine on the scale that is taking place not only in Kimberley, but in many other parts of the country.

In the Burgersfort area of Limpopo, for example, large-scale illegal chrome mining is taking place without any adherence to environmental or health and safety laws. While the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) has intervened in times of crisis, such as when an illegal miner dies, there is no pro-active engagement or enforcement.

“There is massive opportunity and it is entirely neglected by this lack of will by the DMR to have a structured approach to artisanal mining,” says Johan Lorenzen, associate at Richard Spoor Attorneys.

“A number of other African countries, such as Zimbabwe and Ghana, have policies and programmes that specifically target support to enable artisanal miners. It is mind-boggling that South Africa, where the mining industry started with artisanal miners in the diamond sector [in the late 1800s], still doesn’t have that in place,” he says.

Proponents believe a friendlier regulatory regime for artisanal mining will limit the exploitation of illegal miners, allow them to sell minerals legally at market prices, improve health, safety and environmental standards, and boost jobs and the economy.

“The more we’ve talked to people, the more we’ve realised this is not an insurmountable problem. This is not a systemically threatening problem. It’s actually a real economic alternative that can be viable if we focus our energies in the right direction,” says Christopher Rutledge, natural resources manager at ActionAid South Africa.

The Minerals Council – and even the DMR – agrees.

Regularising artisanal miners – provided that it can be done safely, in an environmentally responsible manner and without undermining the health, safety and security of others – could ensure livelihoods for thousands of ex-miners who had lost their jobs due to a decline in formal large-scale mining in South Africa, the Minerals Council said in response to questions.

Godfrey Oliphant, the deputy minister of mineral resources, says the department is “quite adamant [in] minimising illegal mining because that helps to regularise people; they will pay their taxes; they’ll be trading legally.

“We are actually throttling economic progress by not allowing people to work,” Oliphant says. “We need to be flexible in what we do within the remit of the law.”

The law is part of the problem, and so ActionAid and Wits University have embarked on empirical studies on the economic impact of artisanal miners, legal and illegal, and to determine which regulatory changes are required to build the artisanal mining sector. More work also needs to be done on the type of artisanal mining that can be done safely and in a commercially viable manner.

Oliphant says there are two areas that can help open up the industry for artisanal miners – ownerless mines that could be remined or require rehabilitation work, and areas where companies own mining rights, but don’t plan to mine.

“Our encouragement for the mining companies is to say: We’ve got a lot of unemployment, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve been retrenched from the mines, we’ve got a lot of black people who want to get into mining. Let’s work together so where you have huge areas that you don’t plan to mine, let’s not hog the minerals.”


  1. The award of licences to artisanal miners formalises what was previously known as “pirate mining” i.e. illegal mining using basic knowledge of a geological deposit without due consideration to environmental and economic factors, is a political ploy directly connected to populist politics. The SA industry is now an artisanal one, un-investable for large capital projects.
    It is usually opportunistic and benefits politically connected elites.
    The barrier to entry is low, and so are the returns. Formalizing it will not control it.
    The artisanal miners in Kimberley are working the “diamond floors” to the East of the City which were areas on which De Beers, prior to modern crushing technology, placed kimberlite to oxidise and soften. The grade of the deposit is extremely low.
    Maybe DMR can demand the same on the dumps at Voorspoed and Lace.
    The overwhelming majority of these artisanal miners are doomed to poverty in the name of political expediency, with a select few winning the jackpot now and then. Most are not South African citizens.
    The DMR and government officials have chosen to drive both De Beers and Petra Diamonds away.
    De Beers replaced the entire Kimberley resource (plus Voorspoed) with minimal cash at Chidliak in Canada. Great Company, great business, great deal. South Africa’s loss is Canada’s gain. All that expertise and technology for free to Canada, with artisanal miners invading sites in South Africa.
    Who is it mining the Kimberley sites that will ultimately pay for:
    1. The environmental rehabilitation;
    2. The infrastructure required (washing area, water pipelines etc);
    3. Security for suburbs adjacent to the artisanal mining area?;
    and will the artisanal miners
    1. Pay money into an environmental fund;
    2. Take collective responsibility for rehabilitation;
    3. Complete the diamond registers, pay the diamond royalties and:
    4. Pay taxes?.
    The ANC have managed to turn what was once the most powerful mining industry in the world into an artisanal mining disaster. They have achieved exactly what they want and set out to do.
    The artisanal mining policy of the ANC is so far off the Equator principles are required by the World Bank and others, it is bizarre.
    They can “hog” the minerals in the ground in their socialist Utopia, if they can identify where they are, and have the capital and technology to exploit them.
    Nobody else seems to be interested. As evidenced by the six views received by this article to date.

  2. “Release the Kraken” – do any of these guys have any idea of what they are proposing? I seriously doubt it. Why? Because these are the same guys who have been supporting the status quo for over a century. And, besides that, why now? One word, desperation. And that is NOT a healthy position to plan from.

    But, yes, the industry does need an enima😆😆😆

  3. The point that all of these so called ¨experts¨ miss totally is that it does not matter what laws and regulations these ilegal miner promise to obey in order to obtain a Mining licence, they WILL SIMPLY NOT COMPLY…. And if you were to try issue them with a section 54 instruction, they Will at best ignore it and at worst assault or kill the inspector foolish enough to try… You have opened Pandora´s box and (just like with expropriation of property without compensation) have sacrificed the future of the country in order to BUY VOTES….

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