South Africa Deploys Army for Nationwide Crackdown on Illegal Mining

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Up to 3,300 military personnel to participate in an ‘intensified’ effort to combat illegal mining throughout South Africa.

South Africa’s president has directed the deployment of thousands of military personnel to support a nationwide campaign against illegal mining, an illicit practice that reportedly costs the country billions of dollars annually.

The president’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, announced on Thursday that 3,300 army personnel would collaborate with the police in an “intensified anti-criminality operation against illegal mining across all provinces.” This initiative, part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “Operation Prosper,” aims to establish law and order and will continue until April 2024.

Ramaphosa had previously employed the army in the Western Cape province in 2019 to combat gang violence as part of the same overarching operation.

Illegal gold mining has long been a persistent problem in South Africa, fueled by poverty, unemployment, and crime, adversely affecting the country’s investment attractiveness and mining companies’ profits. Informal miners, known as “zama zamas,” take significant risks in disused mines and makeshift tunnels lacking safety measures.

South African police guard the entrance to an abandoned mine in Stormhill, west of Johannesburg, on August 10 [Shiraaz Mohamed/AFP]
South African police guard the entrance to an abandoned mine in Stormhill, west of Johannesburg, on August 10 [Shiraaz Mohamed/AFP]

A May gas explosion in Welkom claimed the lives of around 31 illegal miners, complicating recovery efforts due to high methane levels and the risk of further explosions. In July, 17 individuals, including three children, lost their lives in Angelo Tivani, a settlement near Johannesburg.

Approximately 6,000 abandoned gold mines exist in the country, contributing to environmental and health problems in nearby areas. Informal mining has been linked to rising gang violence and turf wars, with an estimated 30,000 illegal miners operating around thousands of disused and active mines in South Africa, according to the Institute for Security Studies.

The black market mining not only poses a financial challenge to legally operating mines, costing them up to 7 billion rand ($376 million) annually, but also results in substantial economic losses for South Africa in export earnings, taxes, and royalties, as estimated by the Minerals Council South Africa.

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