HomeCentral AfricaFresh thinking needed: unlocking the potential of SA’s ‘Zama Zama’ sector

Fresh thinking needed: unlocking the potential of SA’s ‘Zama Zama’ sector

In 2011 I took part in a research trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was during this excursion that I had the privilege of engaging with a number of artisanal miners.

Even after my return to South Africa the stories I heard from these artisanal miner women, children and men stayed with me. My interest in the complex and contentious issue of artisanal mining was born.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 7, 2020
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In particular, I was struck by the levels of poverty and desperation faced by these miners. This sparked in me an overt mindfulness of the power imbalance that exists in developing countries between the state and corporations on the one hand, and the poor on the other.

Advancing commercial sustainability for artisanal miners

Big business is back but what about artisanal miners?

Also known as ‘Zama Zama’ mining, an isiZulu phrase meaning “we are trying”, the issue of artisanal mining entered the South African mainstream media a few years after my visit to the DRC. 

Media coverage has, by and large, portrayed Zama Zama miners as violent, criminal men who have illegally immigrated to South Africa. The response from the state and mining houses has been similarly negative, resulting in the roll-out of policing measures which have further marginalised these people.

However, my experience in the DRC informed me that the matter was not quite so black and white, and I felt compelled to take a different, deeper and more constructive look at this phenomenon.

This motivated me to study Zama Zama mining in detail for my doctoral study, which I completed in 2019. My thesis investigated meaningful and practical ways in which the state and mining industry in South Africa could respond to the currently marginalised and criminalised artisanal mining sector.

Legislation does not recognise artisanal mining

The first step lay in understanding what had changed between the romantic image of the gold or diamond prospector of old and the modern-day equivalent. In part, the answer lay in the fact that artisanal mining is not recognised in South Africa’s mining legislation.

The Mineral and Petroleum Resource Development Act (MPRDA) of 2002, the central piece of legislation regulating mining in the country, fails to cover artisanal mining. It is as a consequence of this lack of legislation that artisanal miners continue to be criminalised and side-lined.

While this oversight persists in South African law, research on the issue of criminalising artisanal mining clearly shows that it is both unsuccessful and unsustainable to continuously police the sector.

Regrettably more forward-thinking and developmental ways of dealing with artisanal mining have failed to find traction, despite the existence of evidence which links participation in these activities to extreme social pressures such as desperation and poverty.

With an official unemployment rate of 29% prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and estimates that one of the world’s highest rates could accelerate to 50% as a result of the outbreak, already high poverty levels and inequality in South Africa are expected to increase.

As a result, what was already a highly neglected sector in a developmental sphere, has now become even more pressing.

Additionally, considering the retrenchment of mineworkers (both pre- and post-COVID-19), as well as mine closures and the prevalence of abandoned mines, the conditions which encourage artisanal mining are on the increase.

This puts the spotlight firmly on the responsibilities and actions of mining companies with respect to the artisanal mining sector, particularly as an avenue for corporate social responsibility (CSR) investment.

Formalising the artisanal mining sector through CSR

The CSR efforts of South African mining companies are widely directed in accordance with the MPRDA, the Mining Charter of 2018, as well National Environmental Management Act.

These pieces of legislation were developed largely to address the injustices from the past, to foster socio-economic opportunities for historically disadvantaged South Africans and to guarantee a sustainable environment for mining communities.

Furthermore, a primary goal of the MPRDA was to develop and promote South Africa’s artisanal and small-scale sector. In practice, however, the MPRDA addresses the small-scale sector and not the artisanal aspect of mining. This has left historically disadvantaged South Africans with very few options for entering the formal mining sector.

In my research, which focused on the gold mining sector in Gauteng, I conducted a series of qualitative interviews with Zama Zamas, civil society and mining houses.

The aim was to explore whether or not CSR efforts could be put into place to address the artisanal mining sector as a whole, as well as the associated issues.

I subsequently developed a CSR framework that addresses artisanal gold mining in South Africa. The framework can also be used to help the formal sector mitigate the risks that artisanal mining poses to large-scale mining operations and the formal workforce.

The empirical findings of the research provided a new understanding of artisanal mining in South Africa, as well as the mining company’s role and responsibilities in this matter. The research explored the profile of the Zama Zamas, challenges of the sector, as well as the drivers of the artisanal mining sector.

The findings suggest that fresh thinking is required, which must be backed up by meaningful dialogue between all parties. By adopting this approach new ideas and tactics can be developed which may find constructive ways to develop and support artisanal mining.

This type of engagement cannot happen soon enough. The current, unsustainable state of Zama Zama mining can no longer be ignored from an ethical and safety perspective, but also as a socio-economic opportunity worth exploring as a way of mitigating the very drivers that are spurring on this phenomenon.

This is where the CSR framework steps in: To help mining companies formulate and implement a range of impactful CSR initiatives in this space.

Developing CSR framework that incorporates artisanal mining

Mining companies differ widely in their approaches to CSR, with some starting out on this journey and others proving more advanced and mature in their CSR thinking and execution.

The framework, therefore, allows for the incorporation of something as elementary – and valuable – as a company’s own research on Zama Zama mining. For those in the nascent stages of devising a CSR approach, this would provide a deeper understanding of the sector and the people making their living through artisanal mining.

Additionally, mining companies can also embark on reviewing and redeveloping their re-skilling strategy to suit the job market; ensuring that they do not fuel the unsustainable Zama Zama sector yet further through widespread retrenchments.

What the CSR framework also offers is a blueprint to explore and develop artisanal mining to its full extent. This can be done by incorporating artisanal mining into the end-of-life phase of an operating large-scale mine or into integrated mine closure plans. Another option is to develop the sector alongside industrialised mining operations.

The current state of artisanal mining in South Africa echoes other instances of failed development, but it also offers an opportunity to truly address injustices – both those created prior to 1994 as well as post-1994.

What is apparent is that a delicate balance is required when confronting the realities, the drivers and the potential solutions that arise out of this matter.

Curbing the Zama Zama mining sector should be treated with a great deal of caution, but that is not to say it should be a free for all. Regulation should be introduced, but in a manner that will not curb or criminalise the sector again.

Allowing the sector to flourish will add to the development and sustainability of other informal businesses that exist around Zama Zama activity. When such a space is created, the socio-economic development potential of artisanal mining can be fully explored.

Dr Vidette Bester, Social Researcher and Community Development Specialist