To get a sense of how sophisticated illegal mining has become in South Africa, take a look at the picture below and simply count the number of vehicles.
This is an illegal mining operation at the Thungela Resources Khwezela Colliery Kromdraai site in eMalahleni, Mpumalanga.
That these miners are able to operate relatively undisturbed is an indictment of SA’s law enforcement and justice systems. Thungela has been to court multiple times and secured interdicts supposedly stopping the illegal miners from operating.
The problem is getting the police to enforce these interdicts, which illegal miners wave off contemptuously and continue their plunder.
In reply to a statement from shareholder activist group Just Share criticising it for its handling of a toxic spill at Kromdraai, Thungela responded that illegal miners were behind the incident.
Moneyweb asked to see evidence of this and Thungela arranged a presentation showing drone footage of miners occupying and working without hinderance over an area spanning several square kilometres.
The drone footage shows at least 10 excavators and more than a dozen dump trucks operating over an area of about one square kilometre.
That does not count trucks on the road shipping stolen coal to buyers in and around the area. This is a vast area to patrol, and illegal operators appear to have no trouble gaining access to and from the site.
“This is a sophisticated operation, well organised and well-capitalised,” says Mpumi Sithole, executive head of corporate affairs at Thungela.
Not a small operation
This is no zama-zama operation, where illegal miners pan old gold workings for the odd gram or two. This is a massive business, and it has become a feature of mining across the country.
The Minerals Council of SA estimates that the country loses R7 billion a year through illegal mining, but that clearly does not count more sophisticated operations such as those at Kromdraai.
Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe estimated that illegal mining cost the country R41 billion in 2018 alone. That figure is likely much higher now.
Consider that illegal miners have stolen or vandalised water management equipment worth R500 million at Thungela alone. That equipment must be replaced, and protected from further damage.
“We’ve seen a spike in illegal mining activity since 2019, and what we also notice is how sophisticated these illegal miners have become,” says Sithole. “We’ve also seen a spike in vandalism over this period.”
Which begs the question, how is it that the illegal miners can so brazenly trespass and steal without hindrance?
There’s no simple answer, but under-resourced law enforcement appears to be at the root of it.
The kind of mafia operations seen on building sites across many parts of the country have also started appearing on mines.
Mine security is often no match for these gangs that are armed, organised and dangerous.
In Thungela’s case, the environmental costs of illegal mining are plonked on its doorstep. Just Share says illegal miners would not have access to the site, nor the ability to cause damage had the mined land been rehabilitated in accordance with the law.
Thungela replies that it was in the process of rehabilitating the land, and had made good progress, before all that work was undone by the illegal miners. It has invited Just Share to visit the site and see for itself.
Thungela now finds itself the subject of a criminal investigation over acid mine seepage at the Kromdraai site.
Department of Water and Sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau confirmed to Moneyweb that a criminal investigation is underway, after the company was issued with a directive by the department in February over the toxic spill at Kromdraai.
The environmental damage from illegal mining at Kromdraai
Thungela believes its disclosure surrounding the spill has been exemplary, as CEO July Ndlovu told shareholders at the company’s AGM last week. The 2021 annual report mentions a previous toxic spill at Kromdraai in February 2022, which had decanted into the Kromdraaispruit due to the failure of a previously sealed culvert below the decant sump.
“Contributing to this incident was the vandalism and theft of infrastructure required to pump the polluted water from the decant sump to the liming plant for further treatment,” says the annual report.
Mildred Tshoga, technical services manager at Khwezela Colliery, says the combination of heavy rains and illegal mining at the site resulted in pressure build-up and caused the shaft seal to breach.
Acid water decanted from the previously sealed culvert and made its way downstream to a ‘dosing station’ where the water pH (acidity) level is stabilised, and heavy metals removed.
The downstream effects of illegal mining
“The Just Transition and the agreement around climate change is something we need to be party to, but if you look at what is happening at the Kromdraai area – we had rehabilitated this area, but all that work has now been undone, meaning we have to rehabilitate again – you can see the challenges we have to face,” says Sithole.
The Democratic Alliance says South Africa needs a unit of police specialists, familiar with mining law and empowered to take on even heavily armed mining mafias.
This was after Richards Bay Minerals declared force majeure in 2021, saying it was unable to meet certain contractual obligations due to ongoing attacks on its personnel and equipment. Similar claims were made at the Orion mine in Prieska and the Nuco chrome mine in North West.
Sometimes the disruptions are in the form of community demands for contracts, jobs and money, and sometimes it is a case of brazen theft.
The problem appears far more systemic than the government appears willing to admit.
As a pure coal play, Thungela recognises its environmental activities are under the microscope, and will remain so until its operations are eventually shuttered. But African fossil fuel producers complain they are being asked to comply with Western environmental standards at a time when the continent is clawing its way out of poverty, using the very same sources of energy as used by the colonial powers in their race to develop. Now the rules of the game have changed.
Sithole says the company has submitted a rehabilitation plan to the Department of Water and Sanitation, and is awaiting approval.
Longer term, the environmental damage at Kromdraai appears to be a law enforcement issue. The police are going to have to bring serious muscle to a problem that clearly threatens to wreck not just the environment, but SA’s long-term mining prospects.
Listen to Dudu Ramela’s interview with Robyn Hugo of Just Share (or read the transcript here):