Illegal mining costs not only mines, but lives too

McKeed Kotlolo

McKeed Kotlolo

They come from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa to illegally mine precious metals, gold in particular, in Mpumalanga mines, risking their own lives and those of legal miners.

The practice has been going on for years despite numerous deaths and arrests of illegal miners.

This year alone, 10 bodies have been recovered from mines in the Barberton, Mpumalanga, area. Several survivors have also been arrested.

The Fairview Mine and the adjacent Sheba Mine seem to be the main sites of illegal mining activity because they are situated in high mountains and hidden in thick bushes.

Residents and mining officials say Swazi nationals, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans team up with locals to engage in multimillion-rand illegal mining.

They say the activity enjoys the support of crime syndicates that purchase the precious metal at dirt cheap prices.

Some syndicates buy highly sophisticated digging equipment such as expensive drilling machines powered by portable generators so that they can mine.

One of the hardest-hit mining companies, Fairview Mines, says it loses about R13million a year to illegal mining.

Residents say "miners" deal with local black middlemen, but occasionally some buyers arrive in flashy cars displaying Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga registration numbers.

Some locals blame illegal mining for the high rate of unemployment and others say it is because mining companies prefer to employ foreigners, something that the companies deny.

The allegation is also denied by a National Union of Mineworkers shop steward, Derrick Magagula.

"The mine employs local people and all vacant posts get advertised internally first," he says.

"It also trains its people on a continued basis to enable them to be promoted to high positions," Magagula says.

Fairview Mines says illegal mining has been going on for many years and it is worsening.

The company says it has tried beefing up security at disused mines that serve as the illegals' entry points.

Casper Strydom, general manager at Barberton Mines Fairview Section, says all disused mine shafts that were dug on the mountain top were covered in an attempt to stop intruders from entering the deep holes.

"Since they stop at nothing, they [illegal miners] looked for those that were a good distance away from the security guards and reopened them," he says.

"The holes might not be that big, but they could be about a kilometre deep and you must see the flimsy ropes they use to slide in and out."

Strydom says accidents occurred mostly when the illegal miners had to haul heavy loot.

"Some will not even try to hide when they leave the mine. They use the same routes used by our employees."

At times the illegals enter the operational areas after normal staff have blown up the rocks and gone away to allow the fumes inside to subside.

"The illegals will sneak in and collect the loot, ignoring the danger posed by the fumes," says Strydom.

He says the company spends about R750000 a month on security alone - to keep the illegals out.

For every 10kg of gold stolen every month, the company loses about R1,5 million, he says.

Strydom also expresses concern that the number of rival gangs of illegal miners is on the increase.

"Three weeks ago we had between 150 and 200 such people in the mine at the same time. It seems nothing will stop them," Strydom says.

He partly blames the increase on the closure of Barbrook Mine near Louisville and another mine near Louw's Creek within the greater Barberton area.

He says the closures forced experienced but unemployed miners to join forces with illegal miners at the Fairview and Sheba mines.

Barbrook was burnt down last year during industrial unrest. The mine near Louw's Creek closed down more than five years ago.

Strydom, however, emphasises that Fairview is prepared to go all out to stop the practice by, among other things, beefing up its security.

He says the mine holds regular meetings with the police and the Justice Department where they discuss the issue of the light sentences being handed out to offenders, some of whom escape with what he calls "just a slap on the wrist".

"One of the seven survivors arrested last week is out on bail for a similar offence. Together with the police, we are going to visit local communities and educate individuals on the dangers of illegal mining. It will be an ongoing process."

They are not going to allow the illegals to taint the mine's operational safety record, which has stood at zero for the past three years, he says.

Andrew Swart, of the Organised Crime Unit in Mpumalanga, says police will hold a meeting with mine authorities to work out ways of preventing illegal mining in Barberton.

The police say there are many more cases of injuries and deaths that have not been reported to them for fear of arrest.

Since October 10 people have been killed and scores have been injured while illegally mining for gold.