Fight against illicit mining continues in Kimberley - diamond capital of the world

The first South African project to bring illegal miners into the formal fold has been plagued by violence in diamond capital Kimberley, dealing a major blow to national efforts to stem a booming illicit trade.

Kimberley: 19th century diamond rush

The project was launched 18 months ago in Kimberley, the site of a 19th-century diamond rush that lured fortune-seekers from the world over. Mine owners granted more than 800 unlicensed, or informal, small-scale miners the right to legally mine around 1,500 acres of diamond-rich waste fields. The aim of the government-backed scheme was to curb illegal mining and black-market trade of diamonds, and serve as a blueprint for future attempts elsewhere in the country, not only in the diamond sector, but also potentially manganese, gold and chrome.
 

(Photograph:AFP)

Exorbitant illicit mining costs

Illicit mining and mineral trading cost around $1.5 billion a year in lost sales, taxes and royalties, according to a 2017 estimate by industry group the Minerals Council, and sees criminal networks exploit vulnerable workers struggling to make ends meet. While the government has always acted in an advisory capacity, it indicated it may now be forced to take a more active role in the project, the first to attempt so-called formalisation in the mining industry.

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'Zama Zamas'

Ekapa and Petra Diamonds, then a part-owner of the mine, launched the initiative last year at Kimberley, in Northern Cape Province, hoping to address the problem of an influx of zama-zamas - a Zulu-derived word which loosely translates as "keep trying". As much as 6 million rands' ($400,300) worth of diamonds were being taken by illegal miners each month.

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Stolen fences, petrol-bombs, no access to roads

Illegal miners who are not part of the cooperative have stolen fences, petrol-bombed three Ekapa trucks, blocked access roads with rocks and burning tyres, and sabotaged a waste pipeline, shutting down its plant, according to Ekapa. Ekapa security teams have been attacked with knives, slingshots, rocks, petrol bombs and, in one instance, a hunting rifle, the company said.

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Ramping up defences

Ramping up its defences against illegal miners drove Ekapa's security costs up to around 3 million rand ($200,160) before the project began, and the company is again beefing up security. It has resorted to using alternative, longer routes for its trucks, adding up to a heavy financial burden on the company, said Ekapa Minerals CEO Jahn Hohne, in an interview at their Kimberley headquarters.

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Dearth of Data

The Ekapa project's woes show the urgent need for the government to provide clear policy on small-scale or "artisanal" mining using rudimentary techniques, campaigners say. In contrast with other African countries such as Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania, South African law has no provisions for this.

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Bringing miners into the mainstream

The failure thus far of this pilot scheme is a blow to wider corporate and governmental efforts to bring South Africa's estimated tens of thousands of informal miners, or "zama-zamas", into the mainstream, to boost productivity and curb crime.

(Photograph:Reuters)