Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe says the country needs a dedicated team to clamp down on illegal mining in South Africa, adding that it will take several years for the government to seal open mine shafts.
Mantashe and Police Minister Bheki Cele were briefing the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Thursday. They detailed several interventions made by the government to curb illegal mining activities.
Illegal mining hit the headlines recently after the robbery and rapes of a film crew in Krugersdorp. It lead to large-scale crackdowns by police on so-called zama-zamas.
Mantashe described illegal mining as an outright criminal activity.
"It is economic sabotage on our economy. We need a focused team to deal with illegal mining. It is a big industry, driven by internationally-known criminal syndicates."
The Minerals Council South Africa estimates lost sales, taxes and royalties of R21-billion a year through illegal mining, while a 2019 report by Enact, a project of the Institute for Security Studies, Interpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, estimated that zama zama outputs exceed R14-billion annually, making South Africa one of the biggest sources of illicit gold in Africa.
Mantashe said his department had been working with Mintek, South Africa's national mineral research organisation, to close open holes that illegal miners were exploiting.
He said Mintek, which had an allocation of R140-million a year, was currently closing 40 shafts a year.
Over the past three years, it closed 135 holes. Of the 135, 52 were in the West Rand.
"At the rate we are going, it is going to take us 17 years to close the holes," Mantashe said
Meanwhile, Cele told MPs that, over and above the task teams dealing with zama-zamas, there were also interventions by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) Hawks.
"These include illicit mining offences, such as illegal import/export of precious metals, diamonds and chrome. The DPCI is investigating robbery and theft cases of precious metals and diamonds at refineries," he said.
"The directorate has also conducted disruptive operations at identified hotspots, such as illegal gold processing plants, smelt houses, identified refineries and second-hand goods dealerships," Cele said.
Furthermore, Cele said that, since April last year, 4 674 suspected zama-zamas were arrested through several disruptive operations conducted by the Hawks.
This was done in conjunction with mine security, police detectives and visible policing divisions.
"The majority of the arrests took place in Gauteng, which recorded 2 644 arrests. The second and third most arrests took place in the Mpumalanga and the Free State provinces.
"It is through the joint operations that items with an estimated value of over R184 million were seized. These items include gold-bearing material, pendukas, diamonds, diamond gravel, gold, platinum and mercury," Cele said.
Other items seized include equipment essential to the illegal operations, such as spades, shovels, hammers, gloves, excavators, trucks, food parcels, vehicles and gas tanks.
Firearms, ammunition, drugs and cash have also been recovered.
According to Cele, the Hawks are probing 11 major cases, which target the criminal value chain of illicit mining.