Large numbers of illegal miners have been killed in gang-related attacks and countless more have died in underground rockfall incidents over the years. Additionally, the illicit activities of the many thousands of zama zamas is costing South Africa billions each year. As a result, the question of zama zamas is a pressing issue that requires our urgent attention to resolve.

Beyond occupying abandoned mine shafts and waging open gang warfare in the streets, zama zamas damage municipal infrastructure; weaken road foundations; rob homes and take tools from backyards, sheds and garages; and steal electrical cables to sell on the growing illegal copper market.

There are many potential causes for the growing illegal mining issue. For one, South Africa’s exceptionally high unemployment levels continue to drive more people to a life of crime. Furthermore, many illegal immigrants flee from our poverty-stricken neighbours to seek a better life in South Africa, which often means joining the illegal mining trade.

Substantial demand and high prices for precious metals, together with an extensive network of abandoned and disused mines in South Africa, have given rise to a profitable black market for minerals such as gold, platinum and diamonds. Also, traders face very few barriers in smuggling their goods to sell in international markets.

But perhaps the most significant factor allowing these criminals to go about unchecked is a lack of effective regulation and enforcement. Too many illegal miners have gotten away with their crimes for too long, simply because there are too few police on the ground capable of dealing with these dangerous individuals.

Placing boots on the ground to deter illegal operations

There are just over 120 000 sworn police officers in South Africa who are responsible for protecting millions of South Africans against all crimes. Meanwhile, there is an unknown quantity of illegal miners, possibly upwards of 30 000 alone. With this in mind, it’s clear that our police service is greatly outnumbered and spread very thin.

The simplest solution would be to increase the number of boots on the ground, and better equip our officers to dismantle illegal mining operations and discourage future operations. More officers should be allocated to patrolling mining areas, which would lead to more arrests and deter illegal miners from operating openly. But given the severity of crime in our country, this cannot come at the expense of other police work.

Hiring and training more officers for this specific purpose would substantially boost intelligence gathering on mining networks, helping to better identify their various entrances, specific mining practices, and methods of evasion. It would also facilitate better communication and collaboration with local communities. This information could then be used to plan targeted operations against key figures in the illegal mining industry.

Addressing barriers to the fight against illegal mining

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has both the obligation and desire to stop and prevent crimes of all kinds and has every intention to use everything in its arsenal to do so. More officers in the field would considerably help it in the fight against the plague of zama zamas, but there are also more obstacles at play.

The first issue is a lack of able and willing candidates. Deputy Minister of Police Cassel Mathale’s recent announcement that the SAPS recruitment age will be extended by five years is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

Another concern is that more officers will require additional training, equipment, salaries and supporting infrastructure. For this, the government will have to substantially increase funding for the police service.

Regarding illegal mining, current and future police officers will require additional specialised training and equipment to combat this dangerous, nearly militaristic arm of organised crime.

Finally, it is crucial that other government departments and agencies step in to help fight this war on multiple fronts. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy must implement, improve and enforce mine rehabilitation protocols where necessary, or take up the responsibility of rehabilitating or properly closing and securing abandoned mines.

Home Affairs and the Border Management Authority must further assist police in profiling zama zamas, as well as compile and regularly update a record with data on these criminals when they are arrested. This will help build future cases against them if they are arrested for suspected illegal activities. This data must be made instantly accessible by all law enforcement agencies and their members.

This is a complex issue, but one that we as a society cannot ignore. There is simply no better solution to combating the issue of illegal mining than empowering our police. Together, we must raise our voices and call on our government to take the necessary steps before the situation causes more disasters and loss of life.

Dr Zizamele Cebekhulu-Makhaza

President of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union

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