Recent incident involving illegal mining: public hearings

This premium content has been made freely available

Mineral Resources and Energy

07 July 2009
Chairperson: Mr F Gona (ANC)
Share this page:

Meeting Summary

In June 2009, the bodies of 87 illegal miners were discovered in the Eland shaft owned by the Harmony Gold Mining Company Ltd at Welkom in the Free State province of South Africa.  The incident attracted wide-spread media attention and calls were made for urgent Government intervention to deal with illegal mining activity in the country.  The Committee was briefed by the Department of Minerals and Energy, the Chamber of Mines, Harmony Gold Mining Company Ltd and the Special Investigations Unit of the National Prosecuting Authority on 7 July 2009.

On the second day of hearings, the Committee heard submissions from representatives of the Solidarity trade union, the National Union of Mine Workers and the South African National Civic Organisation.  The submissions included the background, extent and implications of illegal mining activity.  All three organisations conceded the involvement of mine employees and mining communities in illegal mining activities and cited the high rates of unemployment and poverty, exacerbated by the recent large-scale retrenchment of mine workers, as the contributing factors.

Recommendations made included introducing social development programmes and skills development programmes to address poverty and unemployment in mining communities, halting further retrenchment of mine workers, introducing more effective legislation on illegal mining, increasing security at closed mine shafts, rehabilitating closed mines in accordance with legislation, reassessing the viability of re-opening closed mines, investigating the effect of uncontrolled blasting by illegal miners on the geological stability of mines, closing down the hostel where illegal processing was carried out and increasing co-operation between mining companies, workers, communities, organised labour and law enforcement agencies.

Members asked for comment on the issue of the nationalisation of mines and asked questions about the amount earned by illegal miners, the involvement of communities, mine employees and management in illegal mining, the low conviction rate achieved by prosecutors and magistrates for illegal mining charges, the control procedures applicable to mining explosives, the origin of illegal mining activity, the number of illegal miners involved, the market for illegal mining products and the rehabilitation of closed mines.

The Committee gave the assurance that illegal mining was seen in a very serious light by Government and planned to conduct oversight visits to mines where illegal mining was taking place.

Meeting report

Submission from Solidarity
Advocate Paul Mardon (Head: Occupational Health and Safety; Solidarity) presented the submission from the Solidarity trade union (see attached documents).

The submission included Solidarity’s role in facilitating the establishment of a stake holder’s forum and in arranging meetings with the Minister and directorate of the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) and other role players.  Details of the extent of the problem of illegal mining, the loss of life resulting from illegal mining activities, the financial losses incurred by the mining industry and the State and the increased risk to the health and safety of mine workers were provided.  Legal action taken against illegal miners had to date been ineffective and a low conviction rate of 38% had been achieved.  Illegal miners received support from local mining communities and recent large-scale retrenchments of mine workers by the industry exacerbated the problem.

Solidarity suggested further investigation into the drafting of new legislation to deal specifically with illegal mining activities, the formation of a specialised unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS) to investigate illegal mining activities and the impact of uncontrolled blasting carried out by illegal miners on the geological stability of mines.

Responding to suggestions made during the briefing of the Committee on 7 July 2009 concerning State control of mines, Adv Mardon suggested that consideration was given to declare all mines as national key points in terms of the existing National Key Points Act and the National Key Points Amendment Bill currently before Parliament.

Action taken by Solidarity included participation in the stakeholder forum, providing input at health and safety forums and notifying members of the dangers and consequences of involved in illegal mining activities.  Solidarity did not condone any participation in illegal mining by its members and will ensure that legal and/or disciplinary action will be taken against any member found to be involved in illegal mining.  Members were encouraged to come forward with information on illegal mining activities and were granted immunity from legal or disciplinary action.

Mr N Diale (ANC) suggested that the State took over control of mines where illegal mining took place and considered nationalising the mines.  He said that lives were being lost, people were suffering and the suggested legislative amendments and further investigations would take too long to solve the problem.

Ms F Mathibela (ANC) asked what charges were brought against persons arrested for illegal mining activities.  She wanted to know how much money was earned by illegal miners.  She asked if illegal miners possessed any scarce skills that enabled them to carry out illegal mining.  She felt that existing legislation was not effective in stopping illegal mining activity and supported the suggestion that mines were nationalised.  She said that many illegal miners were immigrants from neighbouring countries and their activities threatened the jobs of South Africans.  She asked if action was taken against persons supporting illegal miners by providing them with food.

Mr E Lucas (IFP) noted the comment made during the presentation that mining communities with high levels of unemployment and poverty benefited from supporting illegal mining.  He asked if any members of Solidarity were involved in supporting illegal mining.  He said that the network of underground tunnels in mines required extensive knowledge and expertise to navigate.  He said that illegal mining was being controlled by organised crime syndicates but most of the people arrested were mere pawns in the organisation.  He asked what can be done to expose the kingpins of the syndicates.

Adv Mardon agreed that miners acquired skills through the training received and resorted to illegal mining because of a lack of employment opportunities when they were retrenched.  He said that current legislation focused on the collateral aspects of mining and did not contain provisions to deal with illegal mining activities.  Allegations were made that illegal miners were supplied with food by businesses in Welkom and SAPS may have more information in this regard.  SAPS were reluctant to divulge details of ongoing investigations.  He was sure that some members of Solidarity were involved with illegal mining but the union had not been approached by employees facing disciplinary action by the mines with requests for assistance because Solidarity’s stance against involvement with illegal mining was well known.

Adv Mardon said that illegal mining was a social as well as a criminal problem.  Social problems had to be addressed at all levels, including the improvement of the standard of living of communities and providing effective policing services to communities.  Labour unions can assist by informing members and by assisting communities.  Parliament can play a role in drafting effective legislation and by providing resources to ensure adequate policing, efficient judicial systems and the social development of communities.

The Chairperson said that illegal mining activity was first discovered in 1999 and the Committee had been unable to establish if illegal mining had taken place prior to that date.  He asked if Solidarity had any information on when illegal mining had started.  The union suspected the involvement of mine management in illegal mining activities and suggested further investigation into this aspect.  He asked if Solidarity had any additional suggestions.  The apparent easy access to explosives by illegal miners was of concern as mining explosives were known to have been used in the bombing of automatic teller machines and the possession of explosives by unauthorised persons posed a threat to the security of the country.  The Chamber of Mines informed the Committee that mining explosives were stored at several locations and he asked if Solidarity had any suggestions on improving the control over explosives.  Mention was made of the ineffectiveness of current legislation and the low conviction rate achieved.  He asked for further clarity on the comment made by Solidarity that the low conviction rate resulted from a lack of capacity in the criminal justice system.  He requested further information on the figure of 19000 retrenchments referred to in the presentation.

Adv Mardon suspected that illegal mining had occurred prior to 1999, although not to the extent and as well organised as was currently the case.  However, the exchange of information between the mining companies, the DME and the labour unions was a relatively recent development and no information was available on illegal mining activity before 1999.  Sophisticated organisations such as those involved in illegal mining took time to develop.

Adv Mardon said that mine managers suspected of involvement in illegal mining could either be investigated by the employer (e.g. security vetting and checking of assets) or by SAPS on the basis of intelligence received.  Security vetting of personnel was practiced by other industries and may be a viable option for the mining industry.

With regard to the issue of explosives, Adv Mardon understood that there was little control over ensuring that the amount of explosives removed from stores for blasting was actually used.  Incidents of collusion and intimidation of mine employees to supply explosives to illegal miners were reported.

Adv Mardon explained that his comments on the challenges in the judicial system were based on his own personal experience.  The Department of Justice suffered from a lack of capacity and prosecutors and magistrates were overworked and had little time to properly prepare for mining cases.  Specialist knowledge of the mining industry was required to successfully prosecute a mining case.  The Institute for Security Studies reported that cases were often thrown out by magistrates who did not have sufficient knowledge of mining.  When arrested, illegal miners were charged with trespassing and paid R50 in bail (i.e. not a fine) before being released.  False names were often given and once out on bail, the perpetrator simply disappeared.  The use of hand imprint scanners by mines to identify mine workers would assist in identifying illegal miners.

Adv Mardon advised that the figure of 19000 retrenchments referred to the gold industry and was provided by Solidarity’s mine industry department.

Ms Mathibela said that overwork was not an acceptable excuse for magistrates not carrying out their responsibilities.

Adv Mardon reiterated that his comments were based on his own experience.  He agreed that magistrates and prosecutors should have the necessary knowledge and suggested that the Department of Justice was approached for comment.

The Chairperson requested representatives from Harmony to comment on the control measures applicable to mining explosives.

Ms Estelle Cilliers (Technical Manager; Harmony Gold Mining Company Ltd) explained that the Eland shaft belonging to Harmony was closed more than ten years ago after a seismic event caused extensive damage to the mine.  She said that explosives were delivered to the mine twice a week and not kept in storage on the surface by the mine.  The required quantities were sent to the area of the mine where blasting took place in sealed material cars.  All incidents of theft of explosives were immediately reported to the explosives unit of the SAPS and the DME.  The mine conducted weekly checks on the control system for explosives.  Regular audits were conducted by the explosives unit of SAPS and the DME.  In addition, regular internal health and safety audits were conducted by the mine and included checks on explosives.

Submission from the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM)
Mr Eric Gcilitshana (National Secretary: Health and Safety; NUM) presented the submission from NUM (see attached document).

The submission included an overview of the background and key issues pertaining to the mining industry, the safety and security of mine workers and applicable legislation.  Recommendations made by NUM included that all stakeholders work together to find solutions, improving mine security, prosecuting persons involved in the illegal processing and selling of illegal precious metals, avoiding the retrenchment of mine workers and providing more training and skill development programs for retrenched personnel, the rehabilitation of closed mines, increased security for closed mines and shafts, the expansion of social development programmes for the upliftment of local mining communities, additional research into the origins of illegal mining and protection of workers from threats and intimidation by illegal mine workers.

Adv H Schmidt (DA) asked how many miners were involved in illegal mining, particularly in the Free State.  He asked what effective measures can be taken to eliminate illegal mining.  He said that illegal mining only became an issue after the incident in June 2009 and wanted to know when illegal mining had commenced and escalated to the current involvement of organised crime syndicates.

Ms Mathibela referred to the amount of R5.6 billion in lost revenue quoted in the submission (see page 3 of the attached document).  She asked how NUM had determined this amount.

The Chairperson remarked that the existence of a market for illegal gold was referred to at length in the presentation but no factual information was given.  He asked NUM to provide further information on the buyer market for illegal gold.  Mention was made of the threat posed by illegal mining activity to the security of mine workers and he wanted to know how illegal miners gained access to the mines.  He asked if NUM was given the opportunity to visit the Eland shaft where the bodies of the illegal miners were found in June 2009.  NUM appear to suspect that mine management was involved in illegal mining because the cell phone number of top management was known to illegal miners.  He asked if NUM had any suggestions for dealing with the alleged involvement of mine management.

Mr Gcilitshana was unable to advise how many persons were involved in illegal mining.  He said that the Union participated in the committees established in terms of the Mine Health and Safety Act and worked closely with mine management.  He believed that all stakeholders needed to work together to effectively deal with the problem of illegal mining and to uncover those persons involved in the processing and trading of illegal gold.  He said that reports of illegal mining activity were made to the NUM but the Union had decided that it would be too dangerous for its officials to expose themselves to the threats and intimidation tactics of illegal miners by investigating the matter and that it should be dealt with by the police.  NUM was unable to provide details of the buyer market but suspected that large sums of money were involved.  He admitted that NUM members were involved in allowing access to mines by illegal miners.  He said that mine employees and security personnel were subjected to threats, intimidation and bribery from illegal miners.  He said that he did not know the cell phone number of the CEO and suspected that the information could only result from management collusion with illegal miners.  Illegal miners also knew where high grade gold-bearing rock remained in mines that had been closed and therefore had to have access to inside information.

Mr Madoda Sambatha (Regional Co-ordinator; NUM) advised that the estimated loss of R5.6 billion was determined by the Institute of Security Studies.  He said that mine employees allowed illegal miners access because they were unwilling to risk being harmed for something they had no ownership of.  He said that the mining company was responsible for ensuring that discontinued shafts were properly sealed and could not accessed by unauthorised persons.  The union regarded the availability of the cell phone numbers of mine management in a very serious light.  He said that more responsibility must be taken for the death of illegal miners.

Mr Lebogang Hlaele (Regional Co-ordinator, NUM) confirmed that NUM was invited by Harmony to visit the Eland shaft with the Minister.  He did not know why the issue of illegal mining had not been raised before because the mining companies had been aware of the problem for many years.

Mr Gcilitshana applauded the Minister of Minerals and Energy for her speedy action following the incident at Eland shaft.  The bodies of 87 illegal miners were retrieved but it was not known if more bodies remained undiscovered in the mine.

Submission from the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO)

Mr Zwelibanzi Thuthani (Deputy Chairperson; SANCO) presented a verbal submission from SANCO.

Mr Thuthani suspected that illegal mining activity occurred prior to 1987 but was mostly restricted to the theft of gold dust from processing plants.  He said that “G Hostel” in Welkom operated as a fully-fledged processing plant and attempts made to upgrade the hostels into family units since 1994 had been ineffective in eliminating illegal activities.  The intimidation of hostel dwellers and surrounding mining communities had escalated.  Raids by SAPS failed to deter those involved in illegal processing of gold and the security of people living in the mining communities remained a problem.  The employer was held responsible for the security of employees at the workplace but little was done to ensure the security of workers at their homes in the surrounding townships.  The large-scale retrenchment of mine workers exacerbated the problem and SANCO estimated that more than 100000 jobs had recently been lost in the Free State mining areas.  He said that mining companies took no preventative measures against the effects of poverty following the retrenchment of mine workers.  He blamed the increase in poverty for the escalation in illegal mining and said that illegal miners also became more adept at carrying out illegal mining activities.

Mr Thuthani said that communities could become more involved in bringing illegal miners to book.  Suspicions were raised when a person returned after a lengthy absence with enough money to purchase an expensive vehicle.  He deplored the degradation of the community resulting from nefarious practices and felt that communities should be more involved in efforts to stop illegal mining and processing.

Recommendations from SANCO included increased social responsibility programmes to reduce the poverty resulting from retrenchments and the closing of mines, re-assessing the viability of re-opening mines that had been closed but were profitable mined by illegal miners and an increase in security measures at closed mine shafts to prevent access by illegal miners.  Communities knew who were suspected of illegal mining and SANCO suggested closer co-operation between the community and SAPS to identify and prosecute persons involved in illegal mining syndicates.  SANCO recommended that all stakeholders devised a strategy and a clear action plan to deal with illegal mining activities.  When a shaft was closed, the infrastructure remained behind.  Closed shafts were not rehabilitated as required by law.  SANCO suggested that mining companies ensured that abandoned mines were properly sealed to prevent access by illegal miners.  “G Hostel” must be closed down without delay and a special project undertaken by the responsible municipality and other stakeholders to adequately re-house the authorised inhabitants.  The illegal processing taking place at the hostel was a criminal matter and was the responsibility of SAPS.

Mr C Gololo (ANC) was aware of illegal mining activity in Mpumalanga and was advised that people became involved in illegal mining because of high rates of unemployment and poverty.  Many illegal miners came from Mozambique, Swaziland and other neighbouring countries.  It would be difficult for poor communities to survive without the mines.  He asked for the opinion of the labour unions and SANCO on the proposed nationalisation of mines.  He said that there were many disused mines in the country and the problem of illegal mining and the loss of life associated with it was expected to continue.  He said that the perception existed that mining companies had lost the battle against illegal mining and some companies were considering closing down the mines.

Ms Mathibela complimented SANCO on the presentation.  She wanted to know more about the rehabilitation of closed mines and the problem of ownerless derelict mines.  She asked if mines were left un-rehabilitated because of a lack of funds.

Adv Schmidt welcomed the frank discussion on the issue of illegal mining by SANCO.  He said that the concept of apportionment of liability applied to illegal mine workers, communities, mining houses and the State.

Mr Thuthani agreed with Adv Schmidt that liability applied to all the parties concerned but some had more responsibility than others and were more accountable.  Mine owners had specific responsibilities for the rehabilitation of land where mining had been discontinued.  On the issue of nationalisation of mines, he said that mining communities supported Government intervention to re-open and control mines and to halt the retrenchment of mine workers.  The mining communities wanted Government to introduce special programmes to address the high rates of poverty and unemployment prevalent in mining areas.

Ms Marian van der Walt (Executive: Corporate and Industrial Relations; Harmony Gold Mining Company Ltd) explained that although the Eland shaft was closed many years ago, the shaft was still used to provide pumping services for operational shafts.  The company reviewed the viability of re-opening closed shafts on an ongoing basis.  Rehabilitation trust funds were set up for the restoration of the environment when a mine was closed.  She said that Harmony did everything reasonably practicable to prevent unauthorised access to mine shafts.  The safety of mine employees was a top priority and notices in all the languages were erected to warn people of dangerous areas in the mine.

Concerning the issue of the CEO’s cell phone raised by NUM, Ms Van der Walt advised that the number appeared on all press releases from Harmony and was therefore in the public domain.  The company was amenable to discuss allegations with other stakeholders but could only legally take action when provided with factual evidence.  Harmony had a single policy on illegal mining activities, which was applicable to all employees, including underground workers and managerial staff.  The company supported the concept of all stakeholders working together to address illegal mining.

Mr Sambatha said that the issue of nationalisation of mines was a matter for further debate.  He warned against the State taking over the debt of mines experiencing financial difficulty.  He said that the Premier of Limpopo recently announced the sale of a portion of the 40% stake in a mine in the province owned by the State’s mining company, which indicated a lack of commitment by the State in mine ownership.  NUM supported the nationalisation of mines but pointed out that a mining company merely held the right to mine the mineral resources owned by the State.  On the matter of the rehabilitation of mines, he said that mining companies did not rehabilitate slimes dams, which resulted in problems if the area was used for housing developments.

The Chairperson thanked the presenters for their input.  He said that the Committee planned oversight visits to some of the mines affected by illegal mining.  He gave the assurance that the Committee took the matter very seriously and would consider amendments to legislation with the assistance of the DME.  He said that the issue of the nationalisation of mines was currently under public debate and the discussions would be taken into account in the formulation of any new policy.  He requested a written submission from SANCO, to be forwarded to the Committee secretary in due course.

The meeting was adjourned.


  • We don't have attendance info for this committee meeting

Download as PDF

You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.

See detailed instructions for your browser here.

Share this page: