Who Owns Whom

Illegal mining has grown exponentially in recent years in South Africa, as detailed in WOW’s report on the Manufacture of Explosives and pyrotechnics in South Africa . The inference is that “conditions” for the exercise of illegal mining have improved, and that the environment has become conducive to this activity. This prompted government to implement various measures to curb the increase, with limited results.

Illegal mining is estimated to cost the country’s economy about R72bn per annum, according to ResearchGate. In 1994, artisanal mining was recognised as a means to alleviate poverty, but today such activities are sidelined. As far back as 2017, recommendations were offered by the likes of Pontsho Ledwaba of Witwatersrand University’s Centre of Sustainability in Mining and Industry, who suggested in his presentation Making Illegal Mining – Legal that government should amend and relax laws for small-scale miners in a bid to combat illegal mining.

Illegal Mining: A widespread problem

small scale mining demand

Illegal mining in the broad sense extends far beyond South Africa as illustrated with a few examples of other countries.

  • Research by Kai Wan Yuen 2024 found illegal sand mining in southwestern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta of about 0.35 million cubic meters per annum.
  • Between August 2022 and July 2023, an area of 9,001 square kilometres was deforested in Brazil.
  • India suffers from similar extensive illegal mining.

It is generally observed that illegal activities of this nature are much more prevalent in poorer countries.

According to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), artisanal mining in India is generally considered as unauthorised or illegal, although it is not seriously prevented by the government, mainly because such activities provide at least some sustenance to local people living below the poverty line that the government cannot provide employment to.

The Human Rights Commission found that there are between 8,000 and 30,000 illegal miners in the country, locally known as zama zamas. These miners often work in decommissioned mines, seeking quick riches despite the dangers involved.

Causes of illegal mining

The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), in The Economics of Illegal Mining [in South Africa], posits that regional poverty largely accounts for the supply of illegal miners. This means that the participants are people who have nothing to lose. They are prepared to take risks that might lead to the loss of life to make a living.

Firstly, most illegal mining activities are driven by the perception of minimal work that produces much higher income than safer legal work that pays a minimum wage. This puts artisanal miners at risk of unpalatable conditions and the risk of arrests, court cases, and working in unsafe abandoned mines which are also prone to territorial gang wars.

Secondly, the demand for illegally-mined minerals is strong, so the reward exceeds the cost of the risks incurred.

Thirdly, the profitability of illegal mining, points to inefficiencies in the formal industry and the government’s inability to adequately address the regulatory and policing aspects.

The failure of government to address the underlying issues of poverty, porous borders and weak supply chain tracking that drive the illegal smuggling of explosives used in illegal mining from neighbouring countries, further encourages illegal mining.


The Human Rights Commission conducted a study to understand the challenges relating to artisanal underground mining. Its experts and researchers distinguished between informal mining and illegal mining – the difference being that the former choose to sell their mined product and ‘pay royalties to a chief’, and the latter have links to organised crime.

The size of this industry and its growth trend make it difficult to effectively eradicate it. The most feasible approach would be for African countries to collaborate and partner with the mining industry and review policy interventions that support artisanal mining. This will attract small players and presenting an incentive to illegal operators.

Ledwaba’s assessment of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, is that it does not cater to the needs and spectrum of artisanal small mining (ASM) activities, is pro large-scale mining, and has requirements that are costly and onerous for artisanal miners.

A trajectory needs to be further explored on how to bring the artisanal illegal miners into the fold.

Proposed framework for bring illegal miners into the artisanal fold
framework for artisinal mining
Framework for ASM tolereance (Source: CSMI, 2016)

Pontsho Ledwaba’s recommendations include:

  • Lowering the barriers to compliance;
  • Increasing support to artisanal small mining; and
  • Alternative options, such as allowing limited mining in controlled areas as De Beers did with farmers in the Kimberly area.

She believes that the artisanal small mining sector can be transformed into an engine for sustainable development, particularly in rural areas, if challenges are adequately addressed through a series of well-targeted interventions.

There are also lessons to be learnt from countries known for having particularly strict regulations and enforcement mechanisms to eradicate illegal mining such as Australia, Canada, and countries in the European Union.

The economic impact, estimated at billions, underscores the importance and urgency of finding effective solutions that will address regulatory gaps and governance inefficiencies to accommodate artisanal miners.

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