South Africa bets on military deployment to crush illegal mining gangs

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The News

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s government is betting on its deployment of 3,000 soldiers to crush illegal mining gangs and disrupt connected crime syndicates that, according to new World Bank research, cost the economy at least 10% of gross domestic product each year.

Illegal miners known locally as zama zamas — an isiZulu term loosely translated as “take a chance” — operate in disused and active mines across South Africa. The criminality around illegal mining sometimes spills over into local communities. High profile incidents include the alleged gang rapes last year of women by zama zamas, and a gas explosion at a disused mine in Welkom in May this year that killed 31 illegal miners.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, announcing the use of troops earlier this month, said the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) would last until Apr. 28 as part of a wider effort to combat crimes of “economic sabotage.” The president said illegal mining was linked to serious offenses including money laundering, human trafficking, and organized crime.

Although reliable figures are hard to come by, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe told a parliamentary committee in September 2022 that the country lost 49 billion rand ($2.6 billion) to illegal mining in 2019.

In August the community of Riverlea, a low-income suburb near Soweto, protested over policing after at least 20 people were shot in clashes between rival zama zama gangs.

Charles van der Merwe, a member of the Riverlea Mining Forum, said residents feared leaving their homes at night because that was when rival zama zama gangs clashed. “People have been shot in the crossfire when these guys are fighting each other. They even shoot into people’s homes and we regularly find bullets inside our yards,” he told Semafor Africa. “We don’t trust that the police can do anything to protect us against these guys.”

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The World Bank, in a report on the impact of crime on South Africa’s economy published last week, said the “stolen property; protection costs — encompassing security and insurance; and missed economic opportunities” were factors that cost up to 10% of GDP.

Zama zamas have become increasingly common since the 2010s amid the South African mining industry’s decline. Despite the links to organized crime, many of those working as zama zamas today lost their jobs as mining companies shrunk and mines closed down.

Since May this year, more than 4,000 suspects have been arrested across the country on various illegal mining related charges according to the Justice Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster, which includes the departments of police, home affairs, and defense. Nearly 3,000 of those arrested came from across Africa, mostly neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Others came from the DR Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda.

Jan’s view

Trust in law enforcement to deal effectively with the high levels of crime in South Africa has waned considerably in recent years according to the Human Sciences Research Council, a Pretoria based think-tank. That lack of trust explains communities such as Riverlea protesting over zama zama clashes and the phenomenon of vigilantism in many of South Africa’s poorer areas. People don’t feel the police can help them. It also explains the government’s decision to send in troops.

South Africa’s failure to bolster its crime intelligence services has long been explained as a reason for rising crime. Viewing it through the lens of South Africa’s recent apartheid history, the deployment of the military to police civil issues and crime should also never be encouraged. But, as the World Bank’s research shows, the government needs to do what it can to dismantle criminal networks because they’re a drain on the country’s economy. The Bank’s report states the importance of “tackling the rise in organized crime, which has thrived on the declining capacity of the police and justice institutions and has broad-based effects on economic activity.”

With a crucial election looming next year in which the ruling ANC is in danger of losing its majority for the first time since the end of apartheid, Ramaphosa’s government will be hoping that the troops can tackle the violent crime associated with zama zamas and cut off the supply of money that finances other criminal enterprises.

Room for Disagreement

David van Wyk, the lead researcher for the Bench-Marks Foundation, which studies the impact of mining on communities and the environment, said deploying the military was not the solution to what he said was a mining and economics problem.

“The big industrial mines are no longer viable, they no longer operate so what is to happen to these abandoned mines? They should be repurposed for small and medium scale mining,” he said. “Sending in the army is not going to create jobs or deal with unemployment, poverty and inequality in this country.”

The View From a zama zama

Rethabile Mabita, an immigrant from Lesotho who works as a zama zama on Johannesburg’s West Rand, told Semafor Africa the deployment of the military won’t stop him and other zama zamas from continuing to mine the old and abandoned mines they have been working on.

“We won’t stop, we need to do this job to survive and to feed our families. The police come here every few months and arrest some people and take our equipment. But it doesn’t stop us from doing this work. We need to eat,” he said.


  • Zama zamas who risk their lives in disused mines deep underground to eke out a living were profiled in a BBC Africa Eye documentary.