Govt to assist illegal miners

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Illegal miners retrieved from a disused shaft in SA

By ‘Majirata Latela

At least 371 Basotho illegal miners who came to the surface voluntarily are set to return home. The miners were illegally working at a closed shaft at the Vaal Reefs, South Africa.

According to reports, it is believed more Basotho diggers are still working at the shaft which was closed some years ago.

Lesotho’s consul general to South Africa’s North West Province, Selimo Thabane, those who also came out of the mine were from Zimbabwe, South Africa and other countries that border South Africa.

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He said the South African Police Service (SAPS) had previously discovered 20 bodies from the shaft in June this year.

Among the 20 bodies, 11 were identified as Basotho illegal miners, who were found outside an old and disused mine shaft ventilation in Lawrence Park, Orkney. Fourteen more decomposed bodies were found along Ariston Road near a railway line in Orkney.

The SAPS said in a statement that it was evident that the deceased had suffered severe body burns and that investigation into the deaths of the 20 were being conducted. It said the post mortems would be conducted to determine the cause of deaths for bodies found in wrapped white plastic refuse bags.

Thabane said in an interview with theReporter newspaper this week all the illegal miners who came out of the shaft were in good health except for a few who were dehydrated. They were assisted by paramedics and later discharged.

“These illegal miners came out after the police intercepted their food and water suppliers until they realised that something was wrong and decided to come out. When they came out they found police waiting for them.

“The owner of the mine only wanted them to come out of the mine. The mine owners had made a deal with the police not to arrest them so that they can all feel free to come out of the shaft because if they do not come out they will die from hunger and dehydration.

“The company pointed out that it is expensive to bring out the dead bodies from the shaft rather than when those illegal miners come out voluntarily. These miners who came out have also indicated that there are still some miners in the shaft, which means the numbers of people coming out of that shaft will continue to grow as days go on,” Thabane explained.

He added that many of those illegal miners were found without proper documentation. Police confiscated some proper documentation from those who possessed them. South African home affairs department was yet to decide on what to do with the documents.

Thabane further explained that Lesotho is however ready to assist in repatriating those Basotho nationals.

He added: “Usually the case is that SA (South Africa) always makes sure to deport them but this time it is different because those illegal miners have not been arrested.”

He said the illegal miners are currently in different townships around Orkney and nearby places awaiting a decision by that country’s authorities.

He said it was evident that there are more Basotho than other nations involved in illegal mining. He assumed that it was because “Lesotho is landlocked by South Africa and there are many porous borders which Basotho enabling Basotho to illegally cross into the neighbouring country.

 “Lesotho’s geographical situation is different from that of other countries sharing borders with SA. There are places in Lesotho and South Africa which are very close to each other so much so that people in those places do not use a passport or even have to cross the river to get to the other side. This explains why we have so many Basotho in SA.

“However that does not give Basotho the right to always cross into SA illegally. Lesotho on the one hand, also needs to address its socio economic problems so that people can stop crossing into other countries illegally to seek jobs contrary to the law,” he warned sternly.

Thabane advised Basotho to stop illegal mining due to risks and dangers that come with it. He urged for seeking other lawful means to earn the living such as commercial farming.

On September 11 2021 an undocumented Lesotho national, Thabang Ntsibane (34), was remanded in custody by the Graskop Magistrate Court on September 10.

According to an SAPS statement, Ntsibane was arrested during a multi-disciplinary Intelligence driven disruptive operation conducted by Nelspruit Serious Organised Crime, National Intervention Unit and Crime Intelligence on September 9.

The disruptive operation was conducted at Pilgrim Rest focusing on illegal mining where Ntsibane was found operating an illegal Gold Bearing Material lab. The team seized bags of gold bearing materials and wads of cash in the suspect’s possession.

The suspect was charged for contravening the Precious Metals Act, Act 37 of 2005 and Immigration Act, Act 13 of 2002.

According to the Mineral Council South Africa, Illegal mining is on the rise in that country and presents challenges that need to be addressed from a range of perspectives.

The activity takes place at abandoned mines and at operating mines with illegal miners often operating under dangerous conditions.

The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) specifically prohibits mining without the required statutory authorisation.

In South Africa, it is illegal to be in possession of unwrought precious metal ore, platinum group metals (PGMs), gold-bearing material and rough diamonds without the required statutory authorisation.

The mineral council in that country has observed that illegal mining and organised crime are inter-related.

Very often, illegal mining is spearheaded by globally connected criminal syndicates. Zama-zamas, as illegal miners are known in South Africa, are often heavily armed, have explosives and, when trespassing on operating mines, set ambushes and booby traps for employees, security personnel and rival groups of illegal miners.

Following a severe drought in 2016, the excessive use of water by Zama-zamas to process the gold-bearing material became apparent, which directly impacts on local communities.

The council explained that growth in illegal mining could be attributed to the combination of a difficult socio-economic climate and limited resources at the disposal of law enforcement agencies such as police, immigration, border controls and prosecuting authorities.

The minerals council continued: “Many thousands of people are currently estimated to be involved in illegal mining, both directly and indirectly. Miners enter mostly abandoned shafts, travelling as far as 4km underground where they may live for several days at a time, risking their lives and the lives of others.”

Illegal mining has a range of negative social and financial impacts on the state, employees, companies, the mining sector and the country because of loss of revenue, taxes, employment opportunities, capital expenditure, exports, foreign exchange earnings and procurement, among others.

It also presents a serious risk to the sustainability of the industry and its ability to contribute to a meaningful future for all South Africans.

In another development, Thabane yesterday told this publication that the number of Lesotho nationals who have been retrieved from the mine has gone up, and that there have been reports of a shootout at the scene. Details were still sketchy at the time of going to print.