The Year in Review 2023: The zama zama phenomenon and its toll on South Africa

Acting on the mandate given by president Cyril Ramaphosa, SANDF and SAPS raid illegal miners known as zama zamas in the Krugersdorp area earlier this month.

In 2023, South Africa grappled with the persistent and escalating crisis of illegal mining, predominantly orchestrated by groups known as zama zamas.

This year has seen a significant rise in their activities, deeply impacting communities, and the economy.

The term ‘zama zama’, originating from isiZulu, meaning ‘those who try to get something from nothing’, aptly describes individuals driven to illegal mining due to dire economic circumstances.

South Africa’s rich mineral reserves, once a beacon of economic promise, have become a double-edged sword, attracting scores of illegal miners to abandoned shafts left by major mining companies.

Communities residing in Johannesburg’s gold belt have increasingly become victims of the zama zamas’ ruthless turf wars. The situation in areas like Florida and Angelo informal settlement in Boksburg is dire, with residents living in constant fear.

The violence reached a tragic peak with the recent gunfight in Florida and the devastating nitrate inhalation incident in Angelo, claiming numerous lives.

The economic impact of these illegal mining activities is staggering. The ANC MP, Mikateko Mahlaule, highlighted that South Africa loses over R4 billion annually due to illegal mining.

The Minerals Council South Africa estimates the losses to be around R7 billion, factoring in the non-payment of taxes and royalties.

This financial haemorrhage is equivalent to the costs incurred in constructing major power stations like Medupi and Kusile.

The South African government, under President Cyril Ramaphosa, has acknowledged the crisis and taken steps to combat it.

These include setting up a specialised police team, sealing abandoned mines, and deploying the army to assist in fighting illegal mining and related crimes. However, these efforts face significant challenges, including widespread corruption, limited resources, and the vast scale of the problem.

Investigations reveal that many zama zamas are former miners, victims of a shrinking job market. However, the real drivers of this vast illegal enterprise are elusive and likely embedded in highly organised criminal networks with links to local communities, corrupt law enforcement, and the international black market.

Meanwhile, the environmental and social consequences of illegal mining are profound.

The use of explosives in mining operations has led to unstable environments, frequent ground collapses, and the poisoning of water sources. Communities are displaced, living in fear and economic dependency on these illegal activities.

Looking Ahead: Policy and Socio-Economic Solutions

Observers suggest re-examining South Africa’s mining policy to accommodate artisanal miners legally. Addressing broader socio-economic issues like poverty and unemployment is crucial to diminishing the allure of illegal mining. The recent tragedies serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need for effective solutions.

As 2024 approaches, the zama zamas’ scourge remains a complex challenge, deeply intertwined with socio-economic issues and criminal networks with the path ahead arduous.

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