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Illegal mining is on the rise in South Africa and presents challenges that need to be addressed from a range of perspectives. It takes place both at abandoned mines and at operating mines, with illegal miners often operating out of desparation and dangerous conditions.

The growth in illegal mining, which is now taking place on a large scale nationally, could be attributed to the combination of a difficult socio-economic climate and limited resources at the disposal of law enforcement agencies, such as police, immigration, border controls and prosecuting authorities.

It was initially based on the surge in the gold price during the bull market of the first decade of this century. Despite the fall in the US dollar gold price since 2011, the rand gold price has held sufficiently steady to keep illegal mining profitable.

About 14,000, people are currently estimated to be involved in illegal mining. These miners enter mostly abandoned shafts, travelling as far as 4km underground, where they live for several days at a time, risking their lives for an income.

The Chamber is not opposed to small-scale mining carried out on a lawful basis. It may even be that the regulator should be considering ways of legalising an element of currently illegal mining where it is taking place on properties not suited to large-scale mining. This should not compromise the rights and operations of existing mining rights holders.

However, illegal mining is a criminal activity. There is a specific prohibition in the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) on mining without the required statutory authorisation (section 5(4)). It usually also involves at least trespassing and theft.

And, in South Africa, it is illegal to be in possession of unwrought (unrefined or partly refined) precious metal ore – platinum group metals (PGMs) and gold bearing material without the required statutory authorisation. South Africa is also one of the few countries in the world where it is considered to be a criminal offence to be in possession of rough diamonds without the applicable license.

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