Since mining began, the informal or illegal industry has worked alongside the formal industry. In the nineteenth century, most mines started out as small operations. By the end of the nineteenth century, the landscape in South Africa was dominated by capital-intensive international mining companies. But a parallel informal industry developed alongside them.
In South Australia, we call miners zama-zamas – “people who venture”. Elsewhere in Africa these “hangers” are known as artisanal miners. Their technique is a low-capital response to capital-intensive commercial mining methods. Mostly they do surface mining but in South Australia we see them doing serious underground mining, particularly in two of our major mining sectors, diamond and gold.
About 15% of the world’s total mineral production is believed to come from small-scale miners. About 13 million people around the world do this type of work. Their work indirectly benefits 100 million to 150 million people.
There are 35 informal miners for every 10 formal miners. Informal mining is big business and a global industry.
People think that Zama-Zamas are disorganized aliens who do not create jobs. They think they are financing the mafia or international terrorism. Some of this is true, but the reality is more complex.
Small scale mining is a livelihood strategy for the poor in many parts of Africa. Some rural communities farm during the rainy season and mine during the dry season. They are not “leaders” but entrepreneurs.
Many informal miners migrate between mining sites in search of riches. This is what people did in the 19th century gold rushes in the United States, Australia and South Australia. But there is one big difference between South Africa and the rest of Africa: gold in South Africa lies deep underground.
The informal mining industry exists for several reasons. For one thing, there is a market. Gold and diamonds are traded outside the formal regulatory regime. Informal miners produce goods at a lower cost than commercial firms. In some cases mafia groups intervene to expand the market.
Casual miners have a competitive advantage over the big companies. Their business practices are simpler. They have low overheads, use simple machines and manual labour, don’t require much capital and don’t need to comply with government regulations.
The activities of the Zama Zamas indicate that a lot of gold is still out there after the trading companies closed the mines. Gold is there, but in quantities that are either too small or too deep to be worth the effort of the big mining companies.
Often, both formal and informal miners coexist and support each other. In some cases, formal miners take food underground during their shifts and sell it to illegal miners.
For the past five years the Free State government has cracked down on the Zama-Zamas in Matgaping and moved them to the West Rand. Businessmen complain about the negative economic consequences.
Ironically, mining laws and regulations are a large part of the reason illegal mining thrives. Complying with the regulations governing commercial mining is expensive. It is much cheaper to mine gold without complying with labor, environmental and safety rules.
SA’s inefficient mine closing practices give informal miners access to underground mines. Failure to properly close a mine is sometimes because previous practices did not require land rehabilitation. But the mines also remain open because the government is unable to close them. Closing is often a long process.
The government’s inability to enforce existing regulations is a big reason for informal mining.
Communities have many stories to tell about how miners bought the police. They say that an armed response by illegal gangs is better than that of the police.
The diminishing gold mining regions have some of the highest murder rates in the country. Well-armed gangs often controlled posts, dwellings, or lands.
But when something goes wrong — women being raped in a well on the West Rand or people dying in a squatter settlement in Boksburg — communities and politicians blame the Zama Zamas.
Sometimes the police take action. But these measures are sporadic and not part of systematic crime prevention.
There is a policy vacuum regarding small-scale miners in South Africa. Three main policy options are available: legalize, criminalize, or find a more nuanced approach.
The current approach is criminalization. Mining zama zama is illegal. But law enforcement is weak and without political will.
Various arguments are offered to criminalize the informal mining sector. The legal industry and global investors want protection from unfair competition by miners who don’t need to comply with labor law, environmental regulations, and lockout regulations.
The argument for legalizing the sector is that legalization would support an existing practice. The idea is to view informal miners not as “changers” but as entrepreneurs who build livelihoods. People at the lower end of job skills can be helped to earn a living. Legalization will help informal miners comply with labor laws and address safety concerns.
Proponents of legalization say the environmental damage inflicted by small-scale miners is exaggerated. Much less damage, they say, is done by the legal industry.
The biggest challenge to legalization is the emergence of criminal gangs. It is difficult to negotiate and find a compromise with organized crime.
Perhaps the answer is to allow the “reviewers” to continue as they do while you take steps to deal with the crime.
After all, global evidence shows that informal mining indirectly benefits up to 10 times the number of people who work in this country.
• Marais is Professor of Development Studies at the University of the Free State