Illegal mining: Committee's discussions on oversight visit

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Mineral Resources and Energy

08 September 2009
Chairperson: Mr F Gona (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee had recently visited four provincial areas to investigate illegal mining activities, after 86 miners, suspected to be illegal miners, had died at Harmony Gold Mine in Welkom. The Committee had visited Harmony Gold Mine, Impala Platinum Mine, Barberton Gold Mine and Coronation Coal Mine. Members who had undertaken the oversight gave their comments, and commented on several occasions that some very important features that the Committee would need to know before making their decision had not been reflected in the report. These included issues around miners being recruited from Lesotho, who were under the impression that their contracts were legal, threats of violence and shooting from illegal miners, which made South African Police officials reluctant to enforce the legislation, as well as suspicion that some of the officials were involved, and the reasons why the mines were dangerous, as well as the different situations pertaining across all mines. It was therefore resolved that the draft Report would not be adopted, in view of its deficiencies, but must be re-drawn and submitted again for discussion.

Meeting report

The Chairperson notified Members that the meeting would discuss the draft Report on the Committee’s recent oversight visit to investigate instances of alleged illegal mining. The Committee would also make an assessment of the trip.

The Chairperson noted that the issue of illegal mining was posing a serious threat to the country. He raised three main issues of concern. Firstly, illegal mining activities were threatening the lives of the poor working class. He stated that the visit to the mines had been triggered by the death of 86 people in a mine in Welkom. The second concern was that the legal miners were being exposed to extreme danger as illegal miners were heavily armed and threatened the legal miners, sometimes even firing those weapons. Thirdly, South Africa was losing R39 billion per year due to gold that was sold illegally. The mining houses were losing revenue, and the country was losing out on taxes on that revenue.

Mr H Schmidt (DA) stated that he was not among Members who had visited the mines. Although the nature of the economic climate stimulated illegal mining activities, he believed that it was, at the end of the day, the duty of the mining houses to ensure that their mine shafts were protected from unauthorised entry.

Ms F Mathibela (ANC) agreed with the comments of Mr Schmidt. She explained that at one of the mines the Members had visited they were not given protective clothing but just a helmet and a light. She added that when she asked the owners why the mines that still had some ore were not being rehabilitated, she was informed that they were too dangerous to work in. She commented that the fact that there were still rich deposits, coupled with the fact that these mines were left unattended, had led to the illegal mining.

Mr C Gololo (ANC) commented that the Committee had recommended that the amendments to the Mine Health and Safety Act should be fast-tracked. It was necessary also to engage with the Department of Justice to try to ensure that illegal mining would carry much more severe penalties.

The Chairperson asked the Members to concentrate upon making comments on the draft Report. He felt that there was much material information that had not been included in the Report, including what kind of shafts were being used for illegal mining activities, what method was being used by these illegal miners, and what was the quantity of the minerals they were extracting and selling. These details would enable the Committee to make properly-supported recommendations.

Ms F Bikani (ANC) agreed with the Chairperson that the report was lacking vital information. She commented that there should have been more detail in relation to what type of charges were being brought against those illegal miners that were caught, so the Committee could determine if the measures taken were sufficient. The report should also have reflected how many of the illegal miners are locals and how many are foreigners.

Mr David Msiza, Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines, Department of Mineral Resources, pointed out that Mr P Hlabizulu was in attendance during the visits but the draft report did not reflect this.

Ms Mathibela mentioned that the Members had seen food being taken into the mine, and had been told that there was a spaza shop underground charging exorbitant amounts for bread. This was not reflected in the report. In addition, the fact that young boys were being taken underground into the mines and were used for prostitution was also not reflected.

Mr P Dexter (COPE) commented on the reference to “foreigners” and criminality in the report and cautioned on that the report should avoid wording that could be interpreted as having a xenophobic interpretation.

Ms Mathibela agreed with Mr Dexter. During the presentation at the mines, Members were informed that people were being recruited from Lesotho, and were given the impression that these were legal jobs.

Mr Dexter proposed that the report should include a paragraph to this effect, to stress that not all foreigners were aware that the mining was illegal.

Ms Bikani agreed that the report lacked details as to the intensity of the problem, whether South African Police Services (SAPS) were doing anything to assist the mining houses, and whether they were really trying to ensure that the money lost by the Government due to these activities was recovered, as well as what Free State was doing to combat this problem.

Ms N Ngele (ANC) was concerned about the statement in the report that SAPS officials had said they knew that the funders of these criminal activities were based in Johannesburg, and asked why nothing was being done about it if this was the case.

Mr Dexter agreed with Ms Ngele. If the police were aware of the perpetrators they should arrest them. If this was not correct, then the report should use the word “suspect” rather than “know”. The report also reflected that SAPS had said the gold was being sold to illegal gold-buying houses, and again posed the question why the owners were not being arrested.

Ms Mathibela made the point that SAPS had complained that some of their own officials were involved in the illegal mining activities.

Ms Bikani asked if the report should attach copies of the presentations made to the Committee during its visits.

Mr Gololo added that the report should clearly set out the role of those recruiting illegal miners, as well as of the G-Hostels where the illegal miners did some of their gold purification activities.

The Chairperson noted the Committee had also visited Impala Platinum Mine, not because of illegal mining activities, but because of worker-deaths at this mine. The draft Report was once again rather shallow. It did not reflect that the presentation by the Department of Mineral Resources had clearly indicated that the accident could have been avoided. The accident had been caused by the bad judgment of a supervisor, who had inspected the area to be worked on, and declared it to be safe. When the shift boss arrived, he had realised it was not safe. During the process of evacuating the area the ceiling of the mine had caved in. The mine house had not sought to shift blame, but had taken responsibility, and had put in place certain measures to try and avoid this type of accident. This also was not mentioned in the draft Report, and was an extremely important aspect that would have a bearing on the Committee’s decision.

Ms Ngele expressed her disappointment at cave-ins, and asked how serious the mine owners were when they said they were taking measures to prevent this. She believed the Committee should issue a strong statement.

Mr Schmidt commented that the issue came back to training. The Impala accident seemed to have been caused by a lack of training rather than negligence.

The Chairperson submitted that the accident at Impala could be used as a model for what the Committee could do. He agreed that more emphasis needed to be put on the training of upper management and supervisors.

Mr Schmidt suggested that there should be statistics on the safety record of each mine, its accidents and similar information, to enable the Committee to see which mines were not complying with safety requirements, and to make it easier to differentiate between unfortunate incidences and negligence.

Mr Msiza responded that the Department of Mineral Resources did have an indication of which mines were considered high risk and was also currently working on construction of a database.  In regard to the Impala accident the Department was taking a holistic approach to make sure that this type of mistake did not happen again.

The Chairperson stressed that the Committee and Department should together attempt to minimise accidents. He suggested that the use of early detection devices that would alert mines to collapses and cave-ins, such as those used in first world countries. He also commented that the Committee needed to look at the issue of the method of production, which in the view of Impala mine contributed to these types of accidents.

Mr S Mimi (UDM) stated that the legislation had provisions allowing workers to refuse to work in a hazardous environment.

Mr Msiza responded that this was so, but that the employer would have to put in place a procedure on how this right was exercised. This made it difficult for employees to simply make use of the provision. He also brought up the fact that workers could also be intimidated by threats of being fired, and therefore might not make use of their right even when they had detected the danger.

The Chairperson concluded that the Impala issue was a work in progress. A report would be ready on this in two months time.

The Chairperson then moved on to the section of the draft Report dealing with Barberton Gold Mine.

Ms Bikani commented on a paragraph in the draft Report noting that illegal miners were armed. She asked if the Department did not have too high expectations of what it could do. This would have to be solved by Crime Intelligence units.

Ms Mathibela noted that some police officers were in fact refusing to go underground as they had been shot at by illegal miners. SAPS was also short of manpower, and she asked what would happen in future.

Mr Msiza responded that the Department had been engaging with SAPS and had been indicating to them which sections of the relevant legislation could be used when arresting and charging illegal miners. The Department of Home Affairs had also been invited to a forum, in view of the illegal immigrants. He also pointed to the fact that illegal miners used mercury to purify their gold, and this could harm the environment. The Department was investigating whether it was possible to introduce restrictions as to how much mercury an individual could have in his or her possession, and this was an issue that was being taken up with the Department of Health.

The Chairperson commented that the Barberton Mine matter showed a disturbing trend. Unlike Welkom, where unused shafts were used for illegal activities, Barberton was using functional shafts. This meant the illegal miners were competing with the mining companies in the same production area. He read out a letter that was sent by the Manager of Sheba Mines, who aired his concern and fears regarding threats by the illegal miners at this mine.

Ms Bikani recommended that the Committee must speedily reconsider its approach.

Mr Dexter stated that there should be clear recommendations on how to shut down a mine, and the penalties for failure to follow the correct procedure.

The Chairperson submitted that the Committee should rather recommend that small scale miners should mine at these closed shafts.

In relation to Coronation Coal Mine, the Chairperson advised that the oversight visit had noted that people there were mining high grade coal for subsistence purposes and small-scale selling. This mine was abandoned, but posed dangers to the community as the shafts could collapse from a lack of support.

Ms Bikani asked how relevant the research unit was, and in what areas it was doing research.

The Chairperson commented that the draft Report fell seriously short of expectations, and would not assist the Committee in making recommendations. He said it should be sent back to be redrawn.

Mr Dexter and Ms Bikani agreed that there were many gaps in the report. Other Members agreed.

The Chairperson noted that he would then send the report and comments back. He also reported that he was going to draft a letter to management regarding the travel arrangements during the Committee’s visits to the mine as the arrangements were made in a disorderly fashion.

The meeting was adjourned.


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