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Illegal mining: what are the rules of the game?

Illegal mining in South Africa’s gold sector has over the past decades become one of its greatest challenges. Today, it is a thriving, intelligent and almost self-sustaining industry – fed by powerful syndicate leaders across the globe.

For Sibanye-Stillwater, acceptance of this reality is not an option.

The company has been and continues to inject millions of Rands every year into bringing zama zama activities on its mines to a complete stop.

And this is the best solution considering corruption – which contributes to the illicit trade – is still a major challenge in the country, Sibanye-Stillwater’s head of protection services says Nash Lutchman.

AUTHOR: Editor of Mining Review Africa, Laura Cornish.

Rooting out zama zamas ‘at the face’ where Sibanye-Stillwater (Sibanye) has full operational control is the fastest approach to eliminating their destructive presence underground.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 7, 2018

For this reason, the company allocates millions every year to stopping illegal mining fully in its tracks which CEO Neal Froneman is confident can by fully eradicated by the end of 2018 – thanks to the deployment of the latest technologies designed to control and restrict access to working underground shafts.

Sibanye’s Protection Services company, headed by Lutchman who worked with the South African Police Force prior to joining Gold Fields in 2008, is dedicated to keeping the company’s operations “as clean as possible” and this includes managing the threat of illegal mining as well as any other illegal practises on the mines.

Unfortunately, the situation has grown over the years as a decline in gold production has resulted in massive, wide-scale retrenchments and the rise in an industry of miners who now illegal, were once legal.

Having developed close working relationships with police members and government officials to assist in brining illegal miners to book, Protection Services has successfully rooted out thousands of zama zamas over the years – nearly 1 400 in 2017 alone.

Illegal Mining
Sibanye-Stillwater’s head of protection services, Nash Lutchman.

“The greatest challenge in addressing the enormous problem of illegal mining is a complex and diverse conversation between stakeholders in trying to define the rules of the game – what is illegal mining?

How are illegal miners dealt with and more recently, defining how illegal mining should be made legal and more so how to regulate their activities.”

“And because corruption is fuelling this sector, we as private industry have little influence to change the situation and effectively bring down more powerful syndicate drivers encouraging miners to risk their lives to drive this illegal economy forward.

“The reality is that organised crime in South Africa is rampant – the number of cash-in-transit heists that have taken place this year demonstrates this perfectly,” Lutchman outlines.

Greater issues in play

There are a number of greater issues plaguing the eradication of illegal mining – socio-economic challenges, a lack of security on mines, thriving syndicates, a lack of legislation to charge illegal miners and government’s more recent intention to legalise these activities as mentioned.

Lutchman is concerned about the ability to regulate such an environment and its potential to fuel illegal mining further.

“But yes, we continue to encourage discussions around this new development and see the potential to reduce illegal mining if we can keep the product in legal systems, but we need to continue addressing the challenges we are experiencing daily within our own mines and the risks they pose to the business, financially and in terms of health and safety is significant.”

The life of an illegal miner

The illegal mining business has become highly sophisticated and today functions as a business entity in its own right.

From recruitment to gang bosses, banking systems and fully functioning smelt houses, the operations are run under strict control and even include working hours and shift changes.

“This is a competitive and illicit economy which we are competing with which has become so well established and embedded that supporting industries have emerged – there are for example companies specialising in compact food that can travel undetected to underground gangs and workers,” Marthinus Taljaard, investigations manager at Sibanye-Stillwater Protection Services explains.

“It is a well-established logistical chain that requires techniques and technologies from our end to stop activities dead in their tracks.”

Gang rivalry and territory struggles add further fuel to the fire and post threats to Sibanye’s own workers and this is another major driver contributing to Sibanye’s investment into protection services that look after its employees, not only its assets.

Major technology drive

Sibanye’s security budget (for gold and platinum) in 2018 is R400 million – which includes about R50 million on security systems alone.

An additional R300 million was spent in 2017 to specifically focus on technologies to reduce illegal mining and another R150 million between November 2017 and March 2018 to physically extract illegal miners from underground.

Each operator in the CCCC monitors all security technology via computer screens.

“We have progressively introduced technologies and systems to harden our shafts over the last five years – with the introduction of flasking, CCTV coverage, new-age biometric access control systems and even smart turn styles to prevent piggy backing,” says Mario Peens, security technology superintendent.

A two-year old centralised command and control centre (CCCC), head quartered at Sibanye Protection Services’ offices in Libanon, monitors all security-related technologies and can detect any illicit activity that may be occurring across the mine sites – such as tampering with a turn style – or illegal miners trying to enter from outside the perimeters of its fence boundaries.

Peens oversees the CCCC and is responsible for the incorporation of all security-related technologies into Sibanye’s gold operations.

“The CCCC is our central hub where all illegal mining activities are controlled across Kloof, Driefontein and the Cooke shafts (it does not include Beatrix which has its own equivalent control centre.”

It is managed and supervised by an experienced team who are able to feed directives straight to head office when necessary on actions required to curb illegal activities.

The highly secured room, which itself is only accessible to selected individuals is fully modernised, and can detect body heat and can even conduct X-Rays to show if an individual is hiding gold on their person.

There are four large screens per operator monitoring each mine, although plans are underway to amend the system so that any operator can monitor any operation.

More recently, Peens has overseen the introduction of a new biometrics system at all the long life shafts, incorporated into new turn styles which are designed to eliminate illegal miners going underground.

The turn styles are designed to prevent more than one person entering at a time and the biometric system is incorporated inside the turn style which verifies that the access card used to enter matches the biometric details of the individual.

If they don’t match, the turn style will hold the person inside to enable a security officer to evaluate the problem and manage it accordingly.

And while the biometric system caters functions even with shallow or dusty fingerprints, the larger system also incorporates vein scans as an additional precautionary measure.

“Embracing modern technology is definitely the key to solving illegal mining on site,” Peens highlights.

Outside of access control, the CCCC is connected to all CCTV surveillance footage located around the mine sites.

It also offers boom gate control by verifying each person at the gate and further to this has the ability to open and lock gates remotely with sensors to verify activity on the gates.

“Equipment cars travelling underground have been meshed so their contents are clearly visible and we are further to this rolling out thermal cameras on the vehicles to detect heat sources. We are also excited to implement drones more frequently onto our operations for additional monitoring and surveillance.”

R20 billion 

The number former mining minister Susan Shabangu quoted as revenues lost each year to illegal mining

Who are South Africa’s illegal miners?

Illegal mining has always had its roots in gold mining sector but prior to the last 20 years the majority of the activity was being generated by legal miners – many of them foreign nationals.

Because the majority of the workforce were legally entering the mine, security and access control were not a core focus and the technology was less advanced.

But as employment in the sector has decreased on the back of lower production volumes (South Africa is now the eight largest gold producer in the world – down from first position), unemployed ex-miners have fulfilled the role of illegal mining, which naturally explains how comfortable they are working underground and understanding the process.

“The combination of scenarios – socio-economic, an unclear understanding on how to manage illegal mining and organised crime has today led to one of the wealthiest, illegal syndicate entities in the world, with increased tentacles of corruption,” states Lutchman.

Behind the scenes: where the magic begins

The successful delivery of Sibanye-Stillwater’s protection services and technologies cannot only be attributed to the company’s drive to reduce illegal mining, but also its close-knit relationships with expert service providers which provide that technology.

Biometric fingerprint readers are one of the technologies which is helping Sibanye-Stillwater combat illegal mining.

Their installation, overseen by Mario Peens, security technology superintendent for the company’s Protection Services arm, has delivered quick results.

Located within the turnstiles connecting mine workers to the underground shafts at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold operations, the readers are sophisticated and can identify individuals who may have dusty or shallow fingerprints.

The biometric readers were manufactured by IDEMIA (formerly known as SAGEM/Morpho) and distributed by Ideco.

IDEMIA specialises in augmented identification in an increasingly digital world. IDEMIA’ s outdoor fingerprint reader range is specially designed for harsh environments.

“We selected the IDEMIA fingerprint readers because IDEMIA is the market leader in fingerprint biometric systems. This was further enhanced thanks to the company’s reliable support. Ideco were also willing to work with our access control software supplier (Maxxess) to ensure a seamless hardware/software integration solution. Overall, I have been satisfied with our high quality readers which can endure high volume traffic and rugged mining environments,” says Peens.

Another major role player contributing towards Sibanye-Stillwater’s mandate to reduce illegal miners is Group Technical Security Management (GTSM), a provider of expert technical and electronic security services and solutions into specialised applications.

The company’s services have, amongst others, been utilised by Sibanye-Stillwater, Lonmin and Gold Fields.

“We have worked closely with our customers in providing them with bespoke solutions for their operations. A recent example of this is our involvement with Sibanye-Stillwater in assisting with the sourcing, supply, installation and integration of the various technologies required for combatting illegal mining,” says MD Chris Le Sueur.

The company’s services include:

  • System and solution design;
  • Installation and integration of the designed solutions; and
  • Maintenance of installed systems.

GTSM has extensive experience in working with various different technologies to provide an integrated solution to its clients. Its full suite of technologies includes CCTV; access control; audio; metal detectors; X-ray machines; alarm systems; biometric control; wireless technologies; electronic locking systems and perimeter detection systems.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 7, 2018