When Joburg City workers were attempting to erect an electronic billboard on the M2 East alerting motorists to traffic conditions ahead, the sign would work for a day and then fail.
City inspectors went to investigate and found that trenches had been dug alongside the highway, and the electric cables removed. Each time the cable was replaced, it would be gone within a day or two.
On further investigation, in addition to the cable thieves, illegal miners – also known as zama-zamas – were found to be working an old underground mine in the area. This is the original Main Reef, where gold was first discovered in Johannesburg. And this is pretty much how the original miners of the 1880s would have mined – with picks, shovels and sweat.
From the east rand to the west, you can find explosives for sale at some of the illegal ‘refineries’ being operated above ground by the zama-zamas. Things got hairy late last year when blasting was found to be occurring within 30 centimetres of a Transnet fuel pipe. Had it struck the pipe, the devastation would likely have spread for kilometres.
It would have been the worst disaster in Joburg’s history. A veld fire could just as easily have ignited a fuel line, with the same catastrophic results.
Joburg’s infrastructure is under threat, prompting the city to set up an Infrastructure Protection Unit tasked with monitoring and protecting roads, traffic signals, waste management facilities, underground pipelines and other key infrastructure.
“Policing the illegal miners is not easy,” says the unit’s head, Conel Mackay. “All we could do in this situation [was] go to the communities who are involved in this activity and warn them that they were putting themselves, their families and huge parts of the city at risk.
“This seems to have worked. The zama-zamas appear to have moved their activities to less dangerous areas.”
He adds that sinkholes have started to appear in parts of Joburg due to tunnel collapses. Illegal miners often chip away at the support pillars left in place by the original miners to hold up the roof. Add underground water and natural earth stresses to the mix, and collapses are inevitable.
Heightened risk in area around Soweto stadium
One of the areas of greatest concern is around the FNB Stadium in Soweto, flanked on either side by gas and fuel pipelines. Four kilometres away, on the west rand, thousands of illegal miners are chipping and blasting dangerously close to Sasol and Transnet pipelines.
Transnet says it has been aware of the zama-zama activities for several years, though these fall outside its servitude. “Our pipelines are buried underground and we conduct various inspections to ensure the integrity of the pipeline,” says Transnet spokesperson Saret Knoetze. “In addition we regularly patrol the route and conduct servitude safety awareness campaigns in the areas surrounding our pipelines.”
She adds that Transnet is working closely with the Johannesburg Disaster Management Forum, which is composed of companies, interested stakeholders, emergency services, law enforcement agencies and the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA).
“The JRA then formed a committee that specifically addresses the issue of illegal mining activities in Gauteng, and it has escalated the matter to the ministry of mineral resources. The activities are still continuing and we will continue to work with all the role players to find a solution.”
Sasol spokesperson Alex Anderson says the company first received reports of illegal blasting near its pipeline in 2016. It immediately took steps to protect its assets, including route inspections by helicopter and vehicles along its 3 000 kilometres of pipelines. “These inspections detect unauthorised excavations, encroachment, potential gas leaks, any new construction developments and construction works in the vicinity of the pipeline.”
Other steps include an ongoing public awareness programme with the 24 affected municipalities as well as disaster and emergency services, developers, contractors, landowners and fence-line communities along the pipeline.
Sasol’s preventative maintenance efforts include protection against pipeline corrosion as well as a pipeline integrity management system that uses various survey methods, inline inspection and mapping to verify pipeline integrity.
“Risk assessments are performed and emergency plans are in place and submitted to all local emergency services, which are responsible for public safety and evacuation plans,” says Anderson. “Through proactive risk management of our gas pipeline network, we are always aware of the various risks that are posed to this vital infrastructure. However, much more intervention from government is required to prevent illegal mining to avoid any potential harm to these individuals and the surrounding communities.”
Cable theft is another massive threat to Joburg’s infrastructure, and is reckoned to cost the local economy tens of billions of rands each year in replacement costs and disruption.
“When power cables are stolen, businesses are unable to transact over a wide area, so it is difficult to quantify the actual cost,” says Mackay. “Cable theft can also put traffic signals out of order, and that causes huge delays to commuters. It is impossible to quantify what is the exact cost of this to the greater Joburg economy, but it is massive.
“We have to do something about this and this is why we are bringing as many of the role players as possible into the search for a solution. We can beat the problem if everyone plays a part in restoring the rule of law.”
It’s not just Joburg that is affected by this criminality. Last month 22 presumed cable thieves were buried underground at the Gloria Coal Mine in Mpumalanga after cutting overhead cables that powered the giant fans needed to flush deadly methane gas from the working areas.
All it took was a spark to ignite the gas and end their lives.
We now know that most of the dead were Lesotho nationals from a nearby squatter camp who had been raiding nearby mines to steal cable over a period of years. They arrived in gangs 40-strong and chased security away. If police arrived, they would call for back-up from their colleagues. Mine security, even with the back-up of police, are no match for armed gangs – equipped with acetylene torches and angle grinders – up to 80-strong.
Above ground, the thieves destroyed two transformers’ substations worth R50 million to steal metal worth just R500 000. It will take months to get the mine back to normal operation.
Mines are rich pickings for cable thieves. Along the M2 in Joburg, the cable thieves work alongside the zama-zamas. At the Cleveland Road off-ramp, scattered among the old mine dumps, you can see the plastic remains of cables stripped for their copper. Their colleagues are working the nearby dumps for a gram or two of gold still secreted within their sandy wastes.
The police can do little to stop illegal mining. For one thing, they are not insured to go underground.
Then there is the physical danger of coming up against the gangs who control this subterranean world. There are frequent reports of one gang holding another hostage underground and stealing their ore. Killings are a common occurrence. Zama-zamas complain that they are having to pay off the police each time their equipment and ore is confiscated. The police themselves seem to have little interest in arresting people who have no other means of survival.
Though these tunnels have long since been abandoned by the original miners, there is still sufficient gold beneath ground to support a thriving underground (literally) economy. By some estimates, 30 000 to 40 000 zama-zamas are hacking away with picks and chisels at old Joburg mine workings, coming back above ground to crush and process the ore. Sometimes they stay below ground for weeks at a time, surviving off a supply line of food, water and batteries from teams above ground.
It’s reckoned this supports an eco-sphere of several hundred thousand people in the Joburg area, most of them undocumented immigrants.
Illegal mining extends from Springs in the east to Krugersdorp in the west. No-one really knows, but the greater Joburg area is believed to sit atop a rabbit warren of about 160 000km of tunnels, stretching from east to west and depths of up to several kilometres.
Professor Robert Thornton of Wits University has been researching the zama-zamas. He says illegal mining in Joburg runs in parallel with legal mining and does not represent a loss of revenue to the legal sector. “There’s a huge population dependent on illegal mining, and it is difficult for police to stop.”
Government is considering licensing these artisanal miners in the hope that it can re-exert some form of control.
At the very least, it would decriminalise an activity that represents a very real cost to the Joburg economy in terms of theft, damage to infrastructure and disruptions.