23 September 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Zama Sithole

Zama Sithole, a master’s student in Environmental Managementat the University of the Free State (UFS), would one day like to assist communal artisanal small-scale miners (ASM) to legalise their work. Although the ASMs are not involved in turf wars or criminality as in the case of zama-zamas, they are deemed illegal workers.

The prime mining legislation, the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, makes no provision for subsistence or communal ASM activities. Such miners are therefore considered illegal miners.

“ASM employs more than 20 million people globally and a country such as South Africa, with an unemployment rate of 30,1%, should assimilate this type of mining as a legal form of employment,” says Zama.

“Their only client base is the surrounding communities. Mining, besides government grants, is their only source of income.”

Zama aspires to assist the illegal miners to become legal and reap the benefits of skills and funding to increase their income.

“And guidance from the regulatory authorities will ensure that the communal ASM miners become more aware of environmental management,” she adds.

Zama recently presented her research, titled: Shortcomings of the South African Legislative Framework in Addressing Communal Artisanal Small-scale Mining: A Blaauwbosch Case Studyat the 2020 Environmental Law Association (ELA) Annual Student Conference.

She also received the award for Best Speaker at the conference.

In her research, Zama focuses on Blaauwbosch, a rural township area located south-east of Newcastle in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where subsistence coal and clay opencast mining by community members has been going on for more than four decades.

Environmental degradation

According to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, mining is only deemed legal if there is a mining permit, mining right, production right or preferent mining right authorised by the Department of Mineral Resources. Since communal ASMs are unregulated, environmental degradation is rife.

According to her investigation, environmental hazards such as traces of acid mine drainage and poor air quality (due to spontaneous combustion), are localised in the area. This is a deterrent to the surrounding community that has minimal health and safety awareness.

Owing to the fact that communal ASM miners are not assimilated into the legislation, the competent authorities such as the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and the Department of Water and Sanitation cannot offer mineral regulation and environmental guidance support.

Losing revenue

Zama says government is also losing revenue by not legalising this unique sector. She believes it is important to differentiate between communal ASMs and the ‘zama-zama’ type of mining.
She also found that according to the Mining and Minerals Policy (1998), “regulations in respect of mining should be relevant, understandable and affordable to the small-scale miner and should be enforced in a site-specific manner.” ... “Tax and royalty rates, levies, and financial guarantees for rehabilitation should not constrain the development of small-scale operations.”

“However, to date, this has not been realised,” Zama states.

Communal ASM miners thus cannot benefit from government-funded initiatives to upskill them in terms of mining and environmental management.

Making a difference

Zama plans to conduct more research to understand the dynamics of how other countries have legalised this sector and draw learnings from this to determine how it can be applied in the South African context.

“In our country, there is very limited data and hence understanding on communal ASM. This could be one of the reasons why the government cannot make an informed decision on how to legalise this sector,” she says.

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