Zama-zamas here to stay, top mining lawyer says

Widespread poverty will continue feeding the desperation that keeps zama-zamas going underground, top lawyer says.

The tragic events at Langlaagte last week are the symptom of several long-term trends encouraging activity by zama-zamas, and that won’t be changing anytime soon, a prominent mining lawyer says.

Warren Beech, a partner and head of mining at Hogan Lovells, says the primary socio-economic factors contributing to the phenomenon are still in place.

Push, pull factors

“The country’s high unemployment, the depressed state of the economy and commodity markets, in particular, and easy access to abandoned mines are all things that have led to the problem,” says Beech.

Having worked with mining companies for decades, he points to three types of illegal activity undertaken by the zama-zamas and the crime syndicates that support them:

1. The teams are operating at old abandoned workings, where there is no owner present. “This is the most dangerous type of activity because there is no way to do this safely without large amounts of capital. There is a high risk of exposure to noxious gases and falls of ground,” says Beech.

2. The second type involves mining in old areas at existing operations. “They are trespassing in very unsafe areas where ventilation is a big challenge.”

3. Working alongside employees and contractors at existing operations where the mine infrastructure then has to cater for more people underground than planned, and this can lead to ventilation and other deficiencies.

Also Read: Minerals dept moves to close down Langlaagte shaft of death

Beech says the most prevalent type of activity occurs in old abandoned mines. “What’s sad is that the people going underground and risking their lives are only doing so for minimal payments. The crime syndicates supporting them take the gold up the value chain after it is mined.

“Typically, in the smaller-scale operations, the zama-zamas will crush the rock underground by hand using basic tools, and some of them will try and extract the gold from the rock using mercury, which is highly dangerous,” says Beech.

The larger operators will try and break down the rock before transporting it to the surface where it will be put through a small plant.

Illegal miners emerge from an abandoned mineshaft, 12 September 2016, in Langlaagte, Johannesburg. Relatives and family members took it upon themselves to rescue those who are stuck in the abandoned mineshaft. Picture: Alaister Russell

“They are lucky if they get two to three grams per ton by doing this,” says Beech, “which would not be feasible for a commercial operation.”

Trying to police and discourage the zama-zamas is extremely difficult. “From an enforcement perspective, the SAPS is simply not equipped to deal with activity on old underground mines,” says Beech.

The situation at Langlaagte only came to the attention of authorities after the tragedy, when the families of the men called the paramedics. The team that went down to rescue and retrieve them was a specialised unit from Mine Rescue Services (MRS).

Land of opportunity

By one account, South Africa has as many as 6 000 abandoned mines. Even where mines have been closed off using concrete, the zama-zamas have been known to blast through this. “So we just don’t have the capacity to deal with the scale of the problem. And until we can eradicate poverty and address the socio-economic challenges, there will be no immediate end,” says Beech.

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