Over 200 illegal miners are still reportedly trapped underground in an abandoned gold shaft near Benoni on the East Rand but refuse to be rescued and face criminal charges. 11 of the miners were rescued over the weekend and will be appearing in court on Tuesday on charges of illegal mining.

On Sunday evening, rescue services were forced to abandon attempts at bringing those who remained trapped to the surface because the miners feared arrest and refused to be brought up. Food and water have been sent down to the victims, but rescue services have warned that conditions are extremely unsafe and the shaft could fall at any moment.

Due to the extremely dangerous conditions at the shaft, emergency services will not resume rescue attempts until the miners have indicated that they are ready to come up. Police and private security services have remained on standby at the shaft. A ladder has reportedly been left in the shaft for those still below.

No injuries have yet been reported, and the 11 men rescued were checked by medical personnel before being handed over to police, but what does the fact that these men would risk death say about the condition of South Africa’s labour force?

In South Africa, illegal mining of abandoned shafts is still common, despite progress made to curb the practice since 2009, when Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu established the Illegal Mining Stakeholder forums that encourage industry stakeholders to open abandon shafts and detain illegal miners.

Nevertheless, illegal mining still represents a serious concern for the country with many fatal accidents reported and underground clashes between rival groups. Informal miners will excavate ore to sell despite the dangerous and deadly conditions, often even living underground and engaging in organized crime.

Analysts are concerned that efforts to end illegal mining may be thwarted by the pressure currently being placed on South Africa’s mining industry due to rising costs and prolonged labour unrest. Legal miners who have lost their jobs due to downsizing or mines closing may turn to illegal mining as a result.

Furthermore, illegal mining has a damaging effect on the country’s economy. The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) has indicated that South Africa could be losing as much as R5.6 billion annually in revenue due to illegal mining, and unwelcome addition to the other economic challenges the country faces.