An illegal miner. Picture: THE TIMES
An illegal miner. Picture: THE TIMES

Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe has come out in support of informal miners, saying legalising "zama-zamas" would protect the productivity of the mining industry.

Zama-zamas are subsistence, or artisanal, miners who work independently of mining houses, using their own resources. The law does not recognise them and they are therefore regarded as illegal miners.

Zama-zamas often target disused shafts across the country, which, at times, has led to deadly underground accidents, turf wars, as well as clashes with law enforcement authorities.

Delivering his department’s budget vote speech in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Thursday, Mantashe said that, along with gazetting the Mining Charter, enacting the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill, which has been tabled before the NCOP, will go a long way in contributing to policy and regulatory certainty.

"Such certainty will lead to increased confidence in our mining sector, resulting in growth, transformation and competitiveness ... making SA an investment destination of choice for mining and upstream petroleum," he said.

The issuing of mining rights, as well as the proper processing of applications for mining licences, was already among the department’s key priorities, said Mantashe. A preliminary internal investigation showed that the backlog for new mineral right applications stretched as far back as 2012, while applications for the renewal of prospecting right applications went back to 2010.

On Thursday, the department was due to issue two mining permits in Kimberley to artisanal miners, in an attempt to curb widespread illegal mining activity across the country. The zama-zamas managed to negotiate a tailings mining resource (dump) from Ekapa Mining. This would give them access to 500ha of ground to mine.

Mantashe sought to emphasise that legalising zama-zamas would help protect the sector and the miners. "Illegal mining is a criminal activity, that’s why we are experimenting with licensing the ‘zama-zamas’, so that what they mine should go back into to the formal economy and contribute to the economy. [Illegal mining] is as bad as stock theft."

Estimates are that illegal mining in the gold sector alone costs companies in the region of R70bn a year.

The department was planning to convene discussions with Police Minister Bheki Cele on strengthening approaches to dealing with illegal mining.

Mantashe again pledged to convene a summit once consultations on the contentious Mining Charter have been completed. He said the government aimed to finalise and gazette the revised charter within the coming weeks, after considering the inputs and concerns from stakeholders across the country.

The minister has previously said the "use it or lose it principle" needed to be discussed with the industry due to the large number of mines and shafts under care and maintenance. The government has been engaged in tough talks with mining industry stakeholders and mining communities on the revised charter after a version tabled in 2017 prompted legal challenges from the industry.

Bloomberg reported this week that the government had scrapped plans initially proposed in the draft mining charter to require mining companies to contribute 1% of their annual turnover to a new community development agency. There was a risk that the agency "could easily be a slush fund", Mantashe is reported to have said.

The department was allocated R1.9bn for the 2018-19 financial year. Mantashe said the allocation to the department and its entities remained inadequate for it to effectively carry out its mandate.

"This anomaly must be addressed so we are better able to be a catalyst for the growth and development of the economy. We are mindful of the fiscal constraints the country faces and will, therefore, strive to deliver with the limited resources at our disposal."