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Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

SA miners are battling a worsening threat deep underground in the world’s deepest platinum shafts from gangs stealing copper cables and disrupting operations. 

Enticed by high copper prices, thieves sneak in, descend deep underground and set up camp in vast networks of tunnels to strip metal from power cables. The platinum giants are struggling to contain the syndicates of trespassers known as “zama zamas”, a Zulu name that means “take a chance”.

Illegal mining has long been a problem in SA, though now thefts of equipment are becoming a major worry. 

The looting is part of a crime wave affecting vital infrastructure such as railways, telecommunications and utilities, undermining President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts to revive the economy. The thefts have become increasingly lucrative with copper recently hitting a record high on expectations that supply will remain tight and mining companies finding it hard to keep the gangs out.

It’s a headache for companies such as Impala Platinum (Implats),  Sibanye Stillwater and Anglo American Platinum. 

“Every single day there is at least one place that’s not working because of cable theft,” said Mark Munroe, head of Implats’s Rustenburg complex. “At our most marginal shafts, if cable theft is not stopped, we may be forced to shut mining operations because these marginal shafts will not be able to sustain themselves under these conditions.”

The thefts are difficult to stop because it’s impossible to patrol fully all the tunnels over vast distances.

Gangs use ropes or handmade ladders to lower themselves down from holes dug on the surface. After the treacherous descent, stripped copper is then hidden in unused tunnels before being transported away at night. 

About 500 people are illegally underground for as long as 60 days at any time at the sprawling Rustenburg site, Munroe said.

“These guys are well trained, they work with intelligence, they know where to go underground,” he said.

The company had 120 thefts last year and recovered about 5.1 tonnes of stolen copper. So far this year, there have been 45 incidents and 3.2 tonnes recovered, with operations disrupted twice, according to Sibanye, which has stepped up security.

Theft is not the only problem. Record unemployment and the world’s most unequal society — the richest 10% of the population own more than 85% of household wealth — fuel unrest around mines. People are frustrated at government failure to provide basic services such as clean water.

Communities want producers making big profits to tackle social challenges. Every other week, Implats operations face protests for jobs, water and education, Munroe said. Losses could reach R15m a day at a shaft if protesters block roads and prevent worker access, he said.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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