African Reserves

Artisanal gold mining in South Africa is out of control. Mistakes that brought him here

Illegal and unregulated artisanal gold mining in the Witwatersrand Basin, located south of the South African province of Gauteng, poses a growing threat to community, industrial and state security. Reports of turf wars between rival gangs or shootouts between illegal miners and security guards are commonplace.

Tracy Lynn Field, University of the Witwatersrand

But recent incidents indicate an increase in the scale of illegal activities, conflict and crime.

In October 2021, approximately 300 illegal miners, known as “zama zamas”, assaulted and shot at police and security guards when officers attempted to prevent them from delivering food parcels to underground miners. In June 2022, around 150 illegal miners stormed the Sibanye-Stillwater gold miner Cooke well mothballed near Randfontein in an attempt to take control. And since last week, South Africans have been reeling from the horrible robbery and gang rape of a film crew at a mining dump near West Village, a multiracial suburb of Krugersdorp on the West Rand.

Members of the West Village community have since said they were “prisoners at home”. They attribute the rampant crime in the region in recent years to the influx of illegal mining – a situation that law enforcement officials seem unable or unwilling to control.

In the wake of these incidents, the spotlight must turn to the systemic reasons why artisanal gold mining has become such a threat to peace and security. These include the state’s decades-long failure to nip in the bud an unregulated and illegal artisanal gold mining industry. These incidents are also the result of the failure to formalize artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy through appropriate policies and legislation.

Missed opportunities to formalize artisanal mining

Artisanal mining is a labor-intensive form of mining that uses rudimentary tools and technology. Other sub-Saharan African countries recognize artisanal mining as a formal mining category. These include Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The fundamental policies of the early years of South African democracy did not support artisanal mining as a permanent livelihood strategy. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Program simply committed the government to encourage “small-scale mining”. This is provided that safety, working, environmental and health conditions can be maintained. The Minerals Policy 1998 artisanal identified with subsistence mining. He signaled the need for the state to employ resources to “control artisanal mining as effectively as possible.”

The 2002 Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act only recognizes large and small-scale mining. It criminalizes all mining outside of these categories.

Moreover, the Precious Metals Act 2005 empowered the South African Diamonds and Precious Metals Regulator to regulate the acquisition, smelting, refining and beneficiation of gold. This removed the prior involvement of the South African Police Service and was a key driver for the unregulated gold mining industry.

An Illegal Artisanal Gold Mining Industry Takes Root

The gold fields of the Witwatersrand in South Africa produced over 30% of all the gold ever mined. But in recent decades, large-scale gold mining has declined precipitously. Between 2012 and 2019 the industry lost 42,000 jobs.

In this context, an illegal and unregulated gold industry, among the most lucrative and violent on the African continent, took root.

The Minerals Council of South Africa and the police have identified a five-level hierarchy in the illegal and unregulated gold mining industry. Illegal miners are at the bottom level. Gangs and illegal mining bosses, licensed wholesale buyers (scrap metal dealers and pawnbrokers) at the national or regional level, front company exporters and international buyers and intermediary companies are the most important criminal actors.

The Institute of Security Studies estimates that the roughly 30,000 illegal miners produce 14 billion rand (just over $8 million) gold per year. From the state’s point of view, this is “lost production”. The United Arab Emirates and Switzerland were identified as the main export destinations.

Artisanal mining as a permanent livelihood strategy

Thousands of illegal miners continue artisanal mining as a permanent, albeit precarious, livelihood strategy. Recent PhD student Maxwell Chuma explored this. He has studied the natural, social, financial, human and physical capitals that frame artisanal mining in South Africa. He looked at the push and pull factors that drive people into this high-risk activity.

Push factors include loss of formal jobs in the mining industry, lack of alternative employment opportunities and drought conditions in neighboring countries. Pull factors include easy access to mineralized lands, social capital provided by national and ethnic groups that control illegal mining, and relatively stable incomes.

The risks and illegality of the work itself, the intrusions, the rampant use of mercury and area crime do this dangerous and volatile work.


In 2014, the South African Human Rights Commission conducted investigative hearings on unregulated artisanal mining. The commission called on the state to institute an appropriate policy and regulatory framework to facilitate and manage artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy.

In March 2022, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe published the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Policy. The policy recognizes the potential of artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy. But he reserves the permit system for South Africans. It tasks a national coordination and strategic management team with “stopping” illegal mining.

The policy has been criticized for its failure to consider public comment. He has also been criticized for his fanciful assumption that “squads of illegal miners miraculously stop their illegal activities overnight. Implementing the policy will also require legislative changes, which could take years to finalize.

Mantashe, along with the department, must urgently accelerate attempts to formalize artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy. The ministry should properly involve the mining industry and civil society in this process.

At the same time, a coordinated transnational effort to break the grip of criminal syndicates must continue.

Apply a set of principles agreed by OECD countries on managing supply chains in conflict-affected and high-risk areas could also help to manage the problem.

Finally, the powers granted to the precious metals regulator must be reviewed. The changes should ensure that security checks of vendor assets can be performed and gold sourcing patterns can be determined. Licensed and unscrupulous bulk buyers of illegally mined gold must also be identified and brought to justice.

Dr. Maxwell Chuma contributed to this article and the research on which it is based. He is a lecturer at Learnex Corporate Training.

Tracy-Lynn Field, Professor of Environmental Law and Sustainability, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.