Nathan Birhanu is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. He is a graduate of Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.
In recent years, the mining industry has struggled to turn a profit due to a slowdown in demand from China’s economy and an oversupply from producers. South Africa’s mining companies, who export primarily platinum, iron ore, gold, coal, and manganese, have been heavily affected by the downturn.
While industrial mining conducted by large-scale companies has seen a decline in operations and profits, artisanal mining (small-scale mining by single individuals using hand tools and limited technology) has increased in South Africa in way of “zama zamas.” Zama zama, a colloquial term which stems from Zulu, means “to try again” or “take a chance.” The term now refers to artisanal miners that conduct illegal mining in mines that have been discontinued.
A majority of them are migrants from neighboring countries, while others are South African miners who have lost their jobs during the economic downturn. An estimated six thousand zama zamas are in the ground at any one time. Often, they pay low-level mine employees to gain access to a company’s disused mines. Due to the entrance fee and security risks, zama zamas can stay underground for months at a time, occasionally more than a mile deep, having food delivered down at exuberant prices and sending excavated minerals back up. The minerals they mine, usually gold, are sold to local dealers within South Africa and, if large enough, to exporters. (Investors even fund the equipment for zama zama ventures in turn for a portion of profits.)
Such hard labor has considerable risks. The unregulated and illicit nature of the work has brought about violence, corruption, and turf warfare. Rival zama zama factions have been known to fight over profitable territory, rob fellow miners at gunpoint for excavated spoils, and trap one another in the mines to deter competition. Mine collapses and rock falls have also killed hundreds.
The South African government sees the increasing trend of artisanal miners as unfavorable, and it is taking efforts to inhibit or stop such operations. However, the security services and government regulatory agencies do not have the wherewithal or experience to enforce laws on illegal mining. Police are also unwilling to take the considerable risk required to go into the deep mines to confront zama zamas.
Others have called for the government to sanction artisanal mining, regulate it, and tax it. Some zama zama investors have even gone to the Department of Mineral Resources to obtain licenses to mine legally only to be turned away. In 2010, the South African government lost $500 million in tax and export revenue in gold alone from illegal mining.
In addition, the unemployment rate in South Africa is 26 percent, and 66.2 percent of the population over the age of 20 has less than a high school education. Such a high unemployment rate, coupled with a dearth of highly skilled technical labor, is a significant challenge to economic growth and decreasing poverty. Artisanal mining could alleviate part of this issue.
Finally, proposals have been presented in the past for the government to nationalize mines, and may have discouraged investment in the industry. However, if freelance artisanal miners were authorized to mine in shafts abandoned by companies, popular pressure for nationalization might diminish.
The increasing trend of zama zamas does not seem to be abating anytime soon, and regardless of what policy is set, there are profits to be made in South Africa’s mines. If zama zamas won’t get them, the government, mining companies, or international investors will.