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Forging a way forward for Zama-Zamas

Ayabonga Cawe is an economist by training, and aside from a short stint as a researcher at a government agency, he has never been a disciple of market doctrine. He speaks and writes on history, political economy and public policy. A pan Africanist, he earns his keep in the development sector as a project manager, but is often found in watering holes of the city, camera in hand holding court with other restless youth of different persuasions.

The artisanal and small scale mining sector (often called ‘illegal mining’ or Zama-Zamas in South Africa), contrary to the dominant discourse, is not a criminal aberration to a well-functioning system, but a marked feature of the political economy of mining and migration, in which the livelihoods are sought by poor Southern Africans. The distinction between legal and ‘illegal’ mining is a tricky matter; there’s an urgent need for a workable livelihood strategy.

In 2011, forty miners died at an illegal mining shaft in the old mining town of Springs, east of Johannesburg. In 2013, another nineteen miners died at an illegal shaft ZM2. A “volcano” erupted at ZM and the bodies were ‘cooked’ and charred beyond recognition. No one was willing to risk their lives to go down the shaft and extract the dead bodies. The mine was later sealed with the dead bodies inside.

The above is an extract from an article by Wits sociologist Janet Munakamwe. It carries particular resonance as we approach the second week of the disaster at the Lily Mine in Barberton. With three miners trapped underground, and a third landslide reported on Sunday, the fear that their lives and destiny are sealed in the belly of the earth is as unnerving as the uncertainty that society shares with the Mnisi, Mabuza and Nyarenda families. The fact that the African Mining Indaba (and its civil society and community counterpart the Alternative Mining Indaba) were running early last week, was little relief for those, alive or dead, trapped underground labouring to realise the returns on investment that would have been a sure feature of the Indaba hosted at the Cape Town Convention Centre. If there is anything that the sealed mine with dead bodies in 2011 and 2013, the Lily Mine incident and the Indabas last week indicate, is that the political economy of mining in South Africa is at a crossroads – if not in crisis already, as some suggested at the Alternative Mining Indaba.

As an industry historically built on cheap migrant labour, fanned by volatile commodity prices and a political economy conducive to exploitation and value-less extraction, the industry found itself in the 1990s far from its heyday. The context is not much different in 2016. This environment has had an impact on the livelihoods of those communities who have been historically reliant on a buoyant mining sector, and many in the region reproducing historic migration patterns in search of livelihoods.

The criminalisation of artisanal and small scale forms of mining in South Africa as ‘illegal’ in this milieu, and the dangerous and precarious conditions in which it is conducted are well-documented. However, notions of ‘illegality’ often mask the relations between the formal mining sector and the ‘illegal’ sector. The artisanal and small scale mining sector (often called ‘illegal mining’ or Zama-Zamas in South Africa), contrary to the dominant discourse, is not a criminal aberration to a well-functioning system, but a marked feature of the political economy of mining and migration, in which the livelihoods are sought by poor Southern Africans. As Janet Munakamwe notes;

Informal mining is rooted in the political economy of migration and mining and that those involved at the bottom end of this practice are precarious locals and migrants struggling to earn a livelihood…

These two factors, the political economy of mining, and that of migration in the Southern African region, allow us to better understand the role of Zama-Zamas in the pursuit of livelihoods in a region where the extraction of minerals and people from their homes is a part of recent history. As Matthews Hlabane from MACUA (Mining Affected Communities in Action) observed at the Alternative Mining Indaba in response to a comment about the prevalence of Mozambican, Basotho and Zimbabwean immigrants in the illegal mining milieu: “Our brothers were never transported back home. There was no reverse TEBA.”

What Matthews is referring to, is the common occurrence of erstwhile formal miners joining the ranks of ‘illegal’ miners. This should not be surprising for a sector which had 780,000 jobs in 1990, reduced to 513,000 jobs in 2011. The picture for gold mining is even worse, with a decline from 419,000 workers in 1990 to 145,000 in 2011. The perennial question is; where did all of these miners go?

Indeed, some returned to their regions and countries of origin, however many stayed on. As the retrenchments at times coincided with mine closures, many of these miners remained to ‘mine’ secondary and ‘marginal’ deposits on the closed shafts. As Janet Mukanamwe notes;

This type of (informal) mining usually involves individuals, groups and families and often primary and secondary deposits of minerals are extracted using simple hand tools.

The other form of ‘illegal’ mining occurs when formal mine employees engage in illegal activities while at work or whilst on leave. However the focus of this discussion are the illegal miners working in marginal or closed mines, effectively ‘trespassing’, and their connection with the legal and formal mineral value chains.

It is these value chains, which make the distinction between legal and ‘illegal’ mining a tricky political economy matter. It is clear that the final destination of the gold mined in the informal shafts of places like Springs and Welkom, ends up in the supply pipeline of legitimate gold retailers and international buyers. The way this happens is an interesting marketing chain post-extraction; dominated by syndicates and mafia who organise (supply tools, mercury and food) and control the marketing of ‘illegal’ gold; selling it on to legal buyers who are in possession of licences issued in terms of the Precious Minerals Act. This value chain approach unpacks some interesting insights. Firstly it shows the intimate and fluid connections in employment and output between the formal and informal sectors in not only South Africa, but the Southern African region as a whole. Secondly, the position of illegal miners who go underground and the lowest value part of the chain, with the lowest wages, are in essence engaged in precarious work for the benefit of interests at the top of the chain, which are common to both the formal and informal sector. These interests are those of a predominantly white transnational elite, occupying the high value components of the extractives trade. In essence the Zama-Zamas working in the belly of the earth are outsourced labour of the same elite, sans the industrial conflict, wage pressures and political issues associated with formal labour.

Why would someone risk their lives in dangerous work like illegal mining, if it is such a low value activity? The answer to that requires an understanding of illegal mining as a temporary (and at times permanent) livelihood strategy rather than a criminal activity. Two compelling push factors exist for those engaged in this activity, especially immigrants; regional deindustrialisation and rigid and bureaucratic immigration policy. Both of these factors make it difficult to overlook illegal mining when other work either doesn’t exist or one’s legal status (or lack thereof) in South Africa makes it onerous and near impossible to find work.

To venture beyond the veil and discourse of ‘illegality’ in our understanding of illegal mining, there is a need to locate this activity in a discussion of livelihood strategies, precarious and outsourced labour and the challenges of creating free movement of labour within SADC. Moreover, if we accept that deeper deposits (especially in the gold sector) and industrial conflict and mistrust, might lead to greater mechanisation or closures, then we are likely to have more rather than less ‘illegal’ mining. On this basis, continued criminalisation of the activity is futile and has the unintended consequence of strengthening the hand of syndicates involved in other criminal activity at the expense of exploited workers. All of this while the ‘illegal’ minerals makes their way to the ‘legal’ supply chains of major global players and the conditions of work become more dangerous and precarious. It is clear that this activity cannot be criminalised out of existence; such an approach may lead to more of the deaths mentioned above. Recognising ‘illegal’ mining and other informal mineral extraction methods as crucial livelihood strategies for the poorest in the region, will frame the discourse in a way that allows us to have a policy discussion that factors in the importance of Zama Zamas in the debates on mine closure and rehabilitation regulation. It is a timely discussion in light of the slow process surrounding the finalisation of the MPRDA. In the absence of such a discussion a potential livelihood strategy is driven underground with dangerous consequences and the reproduction of the power of criminal syndicates and transnational elites. DM


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