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Illicit mining fight flounders

Monday, November 11th, 2019

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.

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.

However the project has been hit by violence, with informal miners not included in the scheme attacking infrastructure and even members of the newly licensed cooperative, according to mine owner Ekapa Minerals which is running the initiative.

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.

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 formalization in the mining industry.

Asked whether he was pleased with the results of the Ekapa project, minerals minister Gwede Mantashe told Reuters: “I’m not. We will have to assign somebody to work on it.”

He did not elaborate on what would have to be done, adding only: “I am not happy because it (informal mining) must be in the mainstream of mining, it must not be in the periphery.”

The project’s troubles also demonstrate the perils of piecemeal formalization in a country whose regulation of small-scale mining lags far behind its African counterparts.

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