REGULATION, NOT XENOPHOBIA, FOR ZAMA ZAMAS

by Oct 16, 2023Amandla 89, Article

Mantashe seems to have forgotten that neighbouring countries in the region have been locked into the South African labour system. In the mid-70s, Lesotho was the largest foreign supplier of labour in the South African mines.

MINISTER OF MINERAL Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, recently shut down suggestions that “Zama Zamas” should be trained as artisanal miners and incorporated into the formal mining sector, to solve the illegal mining crisis currently engulfing South Africa. Mantashe claimed that this “will be depriving South Africans of the opportunity to be introduced into the small-scale mining sector, since illegal miners are mostly foreign nationals”.

Furthermore, in June, after the news broke that 31 illegal miners from Lesotho had died underground at a Virginia mine, Mantashe came out guns blazing, blaming the Lesotho government for “economic sabotage”.

“Foreigners” part of SA mining

It is quite disingenuous of Mantashe to use illegal miners (foreign nationals) as scapegoats to avoid the elephant in the room his ministry’s shortcomings. He rose to political prominence through two organisations that represented workers and labour politics, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Yet Mantashe seems to have forgotten that neighbouring countries in the region have been locked into the South African labour system. In the mid-70s, Lesotho was the largest foreign supplier of labour in the South African mines.

It was the colonial and apartheid governments that created a tradition of socio-economic dependence on migrant earnings in countries such as Lesotho and Mozambique. Someone should play Hugh Masekela’s iconic song, Stimela, to remind the minister how the South African economy was built on the tears and sweat of men who came from the region, not just South Africa.

The silence of NUM is also deafening, given that its membership was made up of men from Eastern Cape, Lesotho and Mozambique who played a militant role in strikes, which not only challenged the mining industry in the 1980s but also weakened the apartheid system itself.

The President of South Africa, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, also a former national leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, also made strident comments about “illegal mining”.

The root of the problem

It is important to go to the root of the problem of “illegal mining’, which is just a symptom of a failing Department of Mineral Resources.

South Africa has more than six thousand abandoned mines, many in gold and coal.

Over 130 years, the mining industry in South Africa drew labour from Lesotho, Swaziland and Central and Southern Africa. The colonisation of Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and the protectorate status of Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana, saw the mining industry construct a system that funnelled cheap, unskilled migrant labour from these countries to the South African Goldfields. It did this through its monopoly labour recruitment agency, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA).

This involved restricting access to land by peasant farmers and imposing a punitive tax system that press ganged millions into the mines, generation after generation. This not only destroyed peasant agriculture, but it also led to the economic underdevelopment of countries around South Africa. It established South Africa as a sub-imperial power.

The countries around South Africa were deprived of their human resource base, which crippled their economic development. 

Now large-scale industrial mining is no longer economically viable, due to resource depletion, especially of gold. So the companies that monopolised gold mining are withdrawing from South Africa and are abandoning mines. South Africa has more than six thousand abandoned mines, many in gold and coal. Hundreds of thousands of mine workers have been retrenched because of mine closure and abandonment. 

It is not just physical infrastructure that is abandoned, it is also the labour force. Mostly men, who know no other skills than mining.

It is therefore not surprising that every abandoned mine along Main Reef road becomes an informal settlement (squatter camp). The poor and unemployed residing there resort to stripping the abandoned mine for scrap metal. They eventually end up going into the mine workings, scratching for the mineral crumbs left behind by the big companies. It is really survival mining.

Retrenched workers do not return to former labour-sending areas. These areas have been underdeveloped by mining labour recruitment for more than a century. They offer no jobs or economic opportunities. Many are awaiting their pensions or silicosis payouts.

The post-mining economy

This raises the matter of the regulatory role of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and of trade unions like NUM. Both the president and the minister, now regulators, were trade unionists yesterday. The Department has dismally failed to regulate mine closure and rehabilitation, leading to the crisis of mine abandonment. NUM needs to clarify its role regarding retrenched workers and answer as to why it did not fight to protect jobs in the first instance, and why it is not fighting for the dues of retrenched workers to be paid.

Hundreds of thousands of mine workers have been retrenched because of mine closure and abandonment. They eventually end up going into the mine workings, scratching for the mineral crumbs left behind by the big companies.

The president and the minister are failing to plan effectively for not only mine closure and rehabilitation but also for a post-mining economy. Such an economy could repurpose dying mining towns and re-engineer mining infrastructure to accommodate medium, small, and survival/artisanal mining, to save not only jobs but also the economy.

So, we witness the destruction of mine housing, health facilities (clinics/ hospitals), education and training as well as sport and recreation facilities. All these came into existence around mines. Johannesburg started off as a squatter camp in the 1880s, it is slowly returning to squatter camp status due to a lack of vision and planning. Evidence of this comes in the form of recurring disasters, acid mine drainage, rampant crime and growing informal settlements. These are not only around mines but even in skyscrapers in the Central Business District of Johannesburg.

This failure to reshape the economic forces of production to a post-mining economy and the failure to regulate for small-scale and survival mining is what is giving rise to the Zama Zama phenomenon.

The regulatory vacuum is rapidly filled by criminal syndicates exploiting the poorest of the poor – namely former mine workers trying to eke out a living in abandoned mine sites. The criminal syndicates impose an iron grip on the flow of “illegal gold”. The political syndicates exploit the rich vein of xenophobia/ Afrophobia growing in the general population, who are caught in the crossfire of syndicate wars fought to control the flow of this illicit gold.

Our politicians seem to think that popular hatred for “foreign” Africans is an election winner. It certainly distracts from the political failure to deliver services in water and electricity, the crumbling health system, the failure to address the housing crisis and rampant corruption. Yesterday it was drug syndicates and Nigerians. Today it is Basotho and Zama Zamas.

Nteboheng Phakisi and David van Wyk work as researchers at the Bench Marks Foundation.

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