SANDF units on standby to deploy at illegal mines
Security experts recommend co-ordinated operations by the defence force and the SAPS Special Task Force
Operational planning for the SA National Defence Force’s (SANDF) involvement in the battle against illegal miners, or zama zamas, is back in the spotlight after the Brics summit when all departments in the defence and security cluster were involved in safeguarding of the summit.
The defence force has already placed some of units on a 25-hour standby to deploy, though it hasn’t revealed the units involved or whether they will comprise only infantry or include special forces.
Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi recently appealed to the government to consider not only deploying the army, but to involve security forces from all spheres of government. His plea came after 17 people died in Boksburg last month after a gas leak from a gas canister used by zama zamas.
Another five bodies, suspected to be those of illegal miners, were discovered in Riverlea recently after a suspected gunfight. Residents from Riverlea, west of Johannesburg, have borne the brunt of a spike in crime that has been blamed on the growing informal mining settlement, Zamimpilo, in their area.
Police minister Bheki Cele has deployed SAPS units, including the Special Task Force, in some areas. Police briefed the Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources & Energy last week on plans to curb the mounting instability in communities as a result of illegal mining.
The committee visited Riverlea; the old Scot mine in Klerksdorp; and the Batlhako and Ruighoek mines in Witrantjies Village near Rustenburg late last week.
The Hawks have reportedly already set up three task teams to identify the leaders in control of illicit mining in SA, whether they are locals or foreigners and how the minerals are traded and exported.
According to a statement by parliament, the committee was also following up on the Department of Mineral Resources & Energy’s pledge to shut down all derelict mine shafts and operations in Riverlea by the end of September.
Defence and security specialists told Business Day no security grouping was prepared to take on the illegal miners underground.
“Underground is a Wild West where there is no mercy for any intruders and the zama zamas have the advantage because they have been operating there for so long. The only way to act against them is to cut their logistic lines supplying them with food and other materials,” said one former defence force officer now involved in mining security.
“That is also easier said than done as the mine shafts are connected. If you block the entrance at Krugersdorp, they will surface in Klerksdorp. The SANDF can assist by [guarding] the entrances to the shafts. We know the miners have their own [armed] protection teams above ground ... the SANDF should be ready for that and be prepared to shoot back,” the former officer said.
“They should also be issued with clear orders as soldiers are equipped with live ammunition — not rubber bullets. In confrontations people will die and the SANDF should then not be blamed for lives lost.
“When you cut the miners’ food supply lines they surface 100 or more at a time. The forces above ground should be prepared for that [so as] not to be overwhelmed. In those instances the police should also be prepared to arrest and handle large numbers, while the necessary facilities to detain them should be prepared.”
According to mining experts, who requested they remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of their business, the security forces’ actions will contain only a fraction of what has become a sprawling criminal syndicate.
‘Follow the money’
“Following the money and taking those big boys out of the loop is the only way to secure lasting success. When the mining becomes less lucrative the miners will leave and then you can seal the shafts permanently,” one specialist said.
“And that is easier said than done, because the leaders all have some political or influential cover. As with the battle to prevent cable theft and the trade in rhino horns, it can a diplomatic dilemma for the government when other countries are found to be involved. That is why we still have rhino poaching and cable theft, while illicit mining has been continuing for years.
“A holistic approach is needed and we hope government is backing such an approach,” the specialist added. “Rather than keeping the zama zamas in SA’s prisons they should be locked up in their countries of origin. Lasting success depends on those countries’ co-operation too.”
Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman said co-operation between the SANDF’s special forces and the police’s special task force remained the best option to stamp out the illegal operations.
“They train together quite a bit, so co-ordination shouldn’t be a problem. Military engineers can deal with explosives and possible booby traps, while the infantry can provide a cordon around the area of operations.
“An Oryx helicopter can insert troops to give minimum warning time. An Agusta 109 helicopter can be used as an airborne command post. One would hope the security forces will also be prepared to act at night as the miners might use the cover of darkness to escape.”
According to Heitman, the costs of the operations should also not be for the account of the SANDF, which already suffers from budget constraints. Additional funding from the DMRE could be used to cover the expenses, he said.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.