Illegal mining ‘takes over’ South Africa

Illegal mining is becoming increasingly prevalent in South Africa, costing the country billions a year.

The Institute of Security Studies’ Willem Els told Business Day TV that explosive-based crimes like cash-in-transit (CIT) heists, ATM bombings and illegal mining are becoming widespread in the country.

Earlier this year, Police Minister Bheki Cele expressed his frustration with the “stubborn increase” in CIT robberies.

64 incidents were reported between January and March 2023 – a 20.8% increase from the same period last year.

Els said that while CIT robberies and ATM bombings are increasing, one of the most prevalent crimes is illegal mining, which has “taken over the country”.

Initially, illegal mining was concentrated towards the Welkom area in the Free State and some areas in the Eastrand. However, it has since spread from Kwa-Zulu Natal all the way to the Namibian border, he said.

He said this spread can largely be attributed to the ‘Broken Window Theory’, which posits that if small crimes are not addressed, it will encourage bigger and more serious crimes. 

“And that is what we saw in South Africa. Accountability is not there. There are no consequences because it’s almost easier to win the lottery than to be caught and to be sentenced in South Africa,” said Els. 

“And that is really the situation that we have – the fear of consequences has disappeared; we do not have that.”

Els said the country’s illegal mining is often being done by organised crime syndicates that compromise state actors to protect them.

“The higher the state actor that they can compromise, the better the protection.”

Police Minister Bheki Cele

He added that these syndicates are becoming increasingly sophisticated and recruiting people and skills from other countries to assist them.

“Once they’ve got these gangs together, they are operating in a very, very professional way,” he said. 

“That is one of the reasons we call it organized crime; they are really very organized into doing what they do. While the stakes are very high, their yield is extremely high, which is why it continues.”

Another cause contributing to illegal mining’s prevalence is the country’s porous borders.

One of the main reasons for South Africa’s porous borders is the corruption prevalent at the country’s border posts, Els said.

People can cross the country’s borders with only a small bribe. In addition, people can easily smuggle the explosives used in crimes like illegal mining into the country.

Most explosives used in CIT robberies and illegal mining are being smuggled into South Africa. 

However, the country also manufactures explosives. South Africa’s consumption of explosives is estimated to be around 300 million tons per year.

“So it’s a lot of explosives that need to be controlled, that need to be transported, that need to be used,” Els said. 

“Obviously, there are some leakages of that, but there’s also a tremendous amount that is being smuggled across the border.”

At the 2022 Parliamentary Debate on Illegal Mining, Minister Gwede Mantashe said the South African economy and the mining sector lost approximately R49 billion in 2019 to illegal mining. 

He said it is further estimated that mining companies spend over R2 billion on security just to prevent these illicit activities.


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