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Authoritarianism, State Violence, and Vigilantism: Security Challenges Posed by Illegal Miners in South Africa

Theory & Research Illegal miners, colloquially known as the zama zamas — over 75 percent of whom are undocumented migrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Mozambique — risk their lives foraging for leftover minerals, notably gold, in some of the world’s deepest mineshafts

The discovery of diamond in Kimberly in 1867 and gold in Witwatersrand in 1886 attracted huge finance capital from western capitals as well as human capital from the neighbouring countries (Manduna 2022; Bond 1998). It is critical at this stage to note that South Africa is home to half of the world’s gold deposits — with the goldfields located in the Witwatersrand Mining Basin producing more than a third of the world’s gold while still remaining the world’s largest gold reserve (Africa Mining IQ 2023). To further put this into perspective, in 1975, 40 percent of the world’s gold came from South Africa — although this has now plummeted to 4.2 percent (ibid.). One debilitating effect of all this is that currently “South Africa has about 6,100 derelict, unsafe, abandoned and ownerless mineshafts whose rehabilitation costs exceed R49bn. The Minerals Council South Africa has estimated that the mining sector loses about R21bn yearly due to the zama zamas’ operations” (Manduna 2023). Inevitably, a criminal economy of illegal mining sprung up in these mineshafts, whose players operate at the margins of the state. Illegal miners, colloquially known as the zama zamas — over 75 percent of whom are undocumented migrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Mozambique — risk their lives foraging for leftover minerals, notably gold, in some of the world’s deepest mineshafts (Chuma 2022; Manduna 2023).

As a result, the number of zama zamas in post-1994 South Africa has increased exponentially, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Presently, the number of zama zamas is estimated to be over 50,000 — up from about 40,000 in 2021, between 8,000 and 30,000 in 2019, and only 3,000 in 1999 (Chuma 2022; Manduna 2023; South African Human Rights Commission 2015; Lwedaba 2017) — with the number of registered artisanal and small-scale mines (ASM) estimated to be above 1,030 (Lwedaba 2017). This means that in two decades, the number of zama zamas increased more than tenfold. The reason for this exponential increase is worth considering here: “With the advent of the new Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act in 2002, many previously disadvantaged South Africans have begun to see small-scale mining as a way to a new life” (DMR 2023). 

Moreover, in South Africa, especially in Johannesburg (the country’s commercial and industrial capital, built on top of the world’s largest gold deposits), there are millions of ounces of unmined gold that lie just below the surface (Lwedaba 2017). The “El Dorado” status of Johannesburg, with more than “200 towering spoil heaps that punctuate its sprawling cityscape” (Clark 2019), fuels a lucrative and booming illicit gold industry, however risky such operations might be. The recent socio-political and economic instability afflicting several of South Africa’s neighbouring countries and the government’s inability to effectively regulate the informal mining sector have exacerbated the situation even further. These zama zamas mostly extract two minerals: diamonds and gold. It is important to note that the zama zamas are scattered across all the country's nine provinces. Nonetheless, the prevalence of ASM activities is notably higher in economically disadvantaged provinces (i.e. Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo, and Eastern Cape provinces). These provinces have unemployment rates higher than the national average (Statistics South Africa 2022).

The zama zamas often work in abandoned or disused mines, where the risk of accidents, collapses, and exposure to hazardous materials is high (Manduna 2023). They also lack access to proper protective equipment, increasing their vulnerability to accidents and health issues. The zama zamas are often forced to work in inhumane conditions and may be subjected to violence or human rights abuses by their gang leaders (South African Human Rights Commission 2015). Graeme Hosken (2018) describes their activities as the “great mine heist” as the South African gold is being looted on an industrial scale “by armies of illegal miners and networks of buyers”. This situation makes South Africa among the biggest sources of illicit gold in Africa. The zama zamas are largely concentrated in and around the Witwatersrand goldfields located in Witwatersrand Mining Basin, south of Gauteng province. It is important to note that more than 75 percent of them are reported to be undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Mozambique (Clark 2019). This is reflective of the social reproduction of uneven regional development — during the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, mineworkers in Johannesburg were drawn from the Southern African region, aided by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA), a recruiting agency more popularly known as WENELA (Prothero 1974). To this day, the pensions of these migrant workers are yet to be paid in full by these mining companies, representing a perpetual super-exploitation of migrant labour in Johannesburg as South Africa still plays the role of a sub-imperial power of the region (Bond 2004). 

Reports of criminality, illegality, conflict, and violence permeate and are germane to the conduct of the zama zamas. Rampant turf wars between and within the rival gangs — a major source of violence (Cline-Cole 2022; Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime 2022) — as well as shootouts between them and the security forces abound. Mineworkers and mine security officers are also victims of such violence. Commenting on this increased level of violence, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2022, 156) reveals that “violent crimes — including murder, assault and sexual offences — occur at significantly higher levels in former gold mining settlements than in South African cities, themselves notorious for violence”. With the South African security agents seeming either unwilling or unable to control the endemic violence of the zama zamas, the miners pose serious state, community, and industrial security challenges in the country. For instance, in July 2022, they robbed and gang raped eight women at the Mintails Mining South Africa mine dump near Krugersdorp’s West Village in the West Rand, leading to the police arresting 67 people and killing two.

Social, Security, Environmental and Industrial Threats Posed by the Zama Zamas (and Methods Employed in Response)

South Africa has been battling with the social, industrial, and security threats posed by the zama zamas for quite a long time. For example, in November 2009, the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy held public hearings to examine the fatalities of informal miners at Harmony Gold’s mining site. The subsequent report underscored the pervasiveness of organized criminal activities, encompassing instances of employee maltreatment by informal miners and the existence of hierarchical syndicates (Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy 2009). The ensuing recommendations from the report focused on legislative amendments targeting illegal miners, with an emphasis on intensifying punitive measures against them.

While articulating the industrial threats the zama zamas pose to the extractive industry, Sibanye Stillwater — one of the largest South African headquartered companies involved in mining platinum group metals (PGMs) — lamented that “criminal miners conduct their activities across various conditions: surface and underground, closed off mines, abandoned mines, and increasingly (and most worryingly) in the underground mining areas of operating mines” (Sibanye Stillwater 2021, 1). According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (2022), illegal mining in South Africa costs the industry and the economy a huge financial burden, amounting to approximately ZAR 7 billion per annum. The largest fraction of it is escalated security expenses required to safeguard mines from infiltrations and incursions by the zama zamas. Such expenditures can be prodigious, with one mining company allocating over ZAR 960 million to security measures within a five-year period, incorporating the enhancement of their security infrastructure and the recruitment of specialized operational squads (Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime 2022).

As the zama zamas are organized and sustained by crime syndicates and heavily-armed groups, they trespass in operating mines, respond with violence to those trying to stop their activities, and even set booby traps and ambushes to ward off rivals (i.e. both established large-scale miners and other crime syndicates or their employees). As “currently, illegal mining is not directly addressed by South African legislation” (Sibanye Stillwater 2021, 1), and the zama zamas cannot be charged with theft unless they are found in possession of the prohibited precious minerals and metals, concerted efforts to stop their activities remain elusive (Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime 2022; Jinnah 2022). In many mines operated by large-scale mining companies in South Africa, the zama zamas engage in many underground illegal activities ranging from stealing copper cables, precious minerals, and metals, as well as many more illegal activities (Jinnah 2022; Cline-Cole 2022). The South African economy loses, at a conservative estimate, ZAR 21 billion due to illegal mining (Manduna 2023).

With regards to ecological and environmental threats, the zama zamas are known for (a) sabotaging water pipelines, and consequently contaminating the environment; (b) illegal water use and wastage; (c) increased incidence of sinkholes in the mines and around the mining communities; (d) increased mercury contamination — this is a result of using mercury in processing the Gravity Borax Method (GBM); and (e) attendant ecological and environmental hazards of illegally excavating, exploiting, and re-opening closed and disused mineshafts (Murphy and Maseko 2022; Jinnah 2022). However, it should be noted that those engaged in legal mining, particularly the large-scale miners, are equally guilty of the same ecological and environmental crimes in the country. As according to Nel, Marais, and Mqotyana (2023) and Presidency of the Republic of South Africa (2023) South Africa is the world’s biggest coal-dependent economy, the apposite case in point here is the contribution of the country’s mineral-energy complex, particularly in the Mpumalanga province which is “home to over 80% of the country’s coal-fired power plants and 111 coal mines (of which 56 are still active), as well as Sasol’s coal-to-liquid industrial complex” (Presidency of the Republic of South Africa 2023, 94). 

Furthermore, the conduct and activities of the zama zamas in South Africa have caused serious social and security challenges in the mining communities. For example, the increased presence of illegal miners within mining communities disrupts the social cohesion of these communities: communities are witnessing a surge in prostitution, adolescent and student pregnancies, and substance abuse. There is also a further escalation of bullying and human rights violations observed in mining communities, where individuals, employees, and contractors are pressured by the zama zamas into participating in unlawful activities (Murphy and Maseko 2022). Employees who live in the local community face specific risks, as they may be subjected to threats and intimidation, compelling them to comply with illegal endeavours. Moreover, the safety of the employees of large-scale mining firms is jeopardized when criminal miners employ booby traps, or tamper with or steal equipment in underground workspaces. The zama zamas are also known for robbing communities at gunpoint, and committing statutory rape and murder using unlicensed high-calibre rifles (Ngoepe and Manyane 2022). Seen from this vantage point, illegal mining in South Africa is a social problem that needs to be nipped in the bud. However, in the grand scheme of things, the zama zamas are but victims of the vagaries of a capitalism that promotes people’s objectification and allows violence to be an integral element of its productive forces.

Moreover, in many mining communities, there is a surge in cases of the leaders of these zama zamas resorting to bribing communities in order to garner indifference toward their illicit activities. They achieve this by financially supporting various community programmes; in return, the gang leaders and their underlings obtain favour and impunity for their criminal conduct. Chief among the illegal miners’ criminal activities which impact mining communities, large-scale mining companies, and other businesses are the following: the theft of explosives, copper cables, and diesel. State and Community Methods for Responding to the Threats 

The preliminary findings from the document analysis have shown that there are several neoliberal authoritarian and systematic methods the government and South African communities use to respond to the serious security, environmental, social, and industrial threats and challenges posed by the zama zamas, many of whom are undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries. These responses include: state-sponsored violence; arrests by the police and mine security officers; community vigilantism; xenophobia; and legal and regulatory frameworks to eliminate the ASM activities, among other neoliberal authoritarian methods (Cline-Cole 2022; Rall 2022).

2022 year saw a surge in the crackdown on the zama zamas following the violent July 2022 incident near Krugersdorp’s West Village involving the robbery and gang rape of eight women. The government established a national multidisciplinary team to address illegal mining in South Africa through tracking and tracing the zama zamas. Consequently, more than 455 zama zamas (including legal minors) were arrested by the Special Task Force (STF) of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Mpumalanga province in April 2022, and more than 289 in Gauteng in July of the same year — more than 75 percent of whom were undocumented migrants from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Mozambique (Murphy and Maseko 2022; Cline-Cole 2022; Rall 2022). Of the 289 zama zamas arrested in connection to the Krugersdorp incident, about 130 undocumented migrants were charged with breaching the Immigration Act, and engaging in illicit mining, theft, and larceny (Murphy and Maseko 2022; Cline-Cole 2022; Masilela 2022; Rall 2022).

Furthermore, in a vigilante style, the aggrieved community members in Munsieville and Bekkersdal mobilized and took to the streets. They further took the law into their own hands and brutally beat up and murdered some of the zama zamas, whom they accused of being the primary cause of increased social ills in their communities (e.g. high crime rates, prostitution, substance abuse, etc.). It is important to note that 80 of these zama zamas were rounded up and arrested by the community members who launched their own impromptu raid of the abandoned mine and its miners. The community members went further, ransacking the houses of the illegal miners before destroying them, or burning them down along with many of the miners’ belongings (Murphy and Maseko 2022; Cline-Cole 2022). For example, the Kagiso residents in West Rand declared war on the zama zamas and set fire to a building in which many of these miners were residing. These community members even urged the government to deploy members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to nip the country’s illegal mining in the bud, as they had lost trust and confidence in the SAPS who seemed to have failed at the task (Masilela 2022). This was notwithstanding the fact that the police minister, Bheki Cele, had given the residents assurances that the SAPS would be able to address the problem, saying:

We will respond through action as the police, we will deploy the highly trained TRT, NIU and Special Task Force and K9 teams to make sure we flush out all undesirable elements in this area. Whoever comes with fire will be met with fire. We ask for space to conduct these operations and request the community to assist us, work closely with us and ensure we bring perpetrators to book through court processes (Rall 2022).

Furthermore, following the July–August 2022 escalation in the crackdown on the zama zamas by the SAPS and the community members, the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources and Energy urged the Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) to get its act together and implement a policy aimed at closing and sealing disused, ownerless, and derelict mines (Murphy and Maseko 2022; Cline-Cole 2022). The argument being that, left unattended, these mines are a fertile breeding ground for illegal mining and its associated security risks, threats, and challenges. However, after a close look at this strategic policy intervention to address the problem, we see the state playing a facilitatory and assistive role in social reproduction. Through its monopoly on the use of violence and enactment of universal laws — according to Max Weber’s classic characterization of the state — the state is employing neoliberal authoritarian methods to facilitate capital accumulation by the large-scale mining businesses through disaccumulating, dispossessing, and displacing these zama zamas.

Conclusions and Recommendations 

The exponential growth of illegal mining activities and associated acts of criminality is a result of many intersectional and structural factors, past and present, and unique to South Africa: the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act; inequalities — both the means and factors of mining production are still in the hands of a small number of white individuals; the huge impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of job losses; cross-border migration from neighbouring countries; and record levels of unemployment and poverty rates. As with the case of Latin American experiences with violence, South Africa’s history of organized crime and violence is providing the necessary (infra)structures, actors, and networks for illegal mining. The reason being that these previous (infra)structures, actors, and networks often expand their operations by entering the extractive industry through leveraging economically- and socially-vulnerable groups, further worsening the social, environmental, state, and industrial threats in subaltern communities where they operate. 

Thus, to better respond to — and resist — the state-sponsored violence, vigilantism, and xenophobia against the zama zamas, the ecological and extractive industry-based civil society should advocate and lobby for addressing these intersectional, complex, and structural challenges before blaming the zama zamas for their criminal acts. As illustrated by the preliminary findings, while their activities are a threat to business, industry, society, and the environment, they are also inventive methods for surviving in this harsh and vicious post-COVID-19 exclusionary economy. Echoing similar sentiments, Reginald Cline-Cole (2022) andTeresa Nogueira Pinto (2022) assert that the zama zama illegal mining operations and violent criminal conduct in South Africa’s goldfields constitute livelihood adaptation responses. These emerge as resilient coping mechanisms for managing austerity and inflation, concomitant with the long-established and markedly amplified influx of predominantly undocumented migrants to South Africa since approximately the year 2000. Overall, the problem in South Africa at the moment is that those expressing dissent towards xenophobia, who advocate for human rights, or who prioritize addressing the issue of rape over discussing the issue of undocumented migration, are systematically harassed and attacked online.



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