The brazen activities of illegal mining, which stem from Barberton, Graskop, and Sabie, have escalated unchecked for far too long, and reached a tipping point where they now mostly threaten the tourism and agricultural economy as well as the health element of society.
In the past, such communities have successfully driven out the illegal miners in a gripping tale of lawlessness and resilience, however over the last four years the zamazamas have been able to excessively establish a stronghold in the historic town of Pilgrims Rest and the Blyde River Canyon catchment with little to no control.
The recent concern has been around the impact that the chemicals the zamazamas use chemicals such as clean cyanide, E-coli and mercury in their process of diverting gold which they also release into the Blyde River system. Several complaints have been raised from local tourism authorities and the agricultural sector in the area, who are taking a health and financial strain since the zamazamas invasion which has now picked to pollute the Blyde River water catchment flowing to the Olifants River, into Kruger National Park and alongside the iconic Panorama route.
The Byde River water catchment serves as a strategic water source area with many downstream water users whose livelihoods depend on the river. It is also a strategic waterfalls area and a catchment area that supplies water to the Blyde Agricultural sector downstream users and plays an important role in providing clean water into the Olifants system which is highly polluted. It plays an important economic role in helping South Africa Achieve its downstream water obligations to Mozambique.
The gold in Pilgrims Rest has been mined for some time by Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (Pty) Limited, and the people had access to the gold, however due to forced removals that land was taken and used for agriculture. The status quo of that land is a lull between being owned between the community since it was returned to them after the process of land, and those it was awarded to during forced removals.
Goodenough Mashego, one of the land owners in Pilgrims Rest said that zamazama mining is only called illegal because it is not regulated. He further said that legislation would be beneficial to both government and the miners as compliance will diligently be monitored. He further accused the South African government for being embedded with mining companies that they believe the output that may come from a small mine might be higher than that of big mines and that due to low overheads, they may need to sell the gold for a low price, which will not be beneficial to the big companies.
“South African Government must understand that when there are resources, there will always be people who want to exploit those resources. The whole concept of colonisation was about Europeans wanting to come to Africa to exploit the resources. Big companies sell an ounce now for an ex- amount, because they invested so much in digging out that ounce. Politicians are protecting those big companies from competition. If twenty thousand community people get down to mining gold, their output is likely to be bigger than that of big companies.” Mashego said.
“The damage made due to using unregulated mining means, also puts the life of the miner in danger, as their gold processing. When you are inside a mine and you don’t have regulated mining ware for example, your health is compromised highly. If regulated, people will have appropriate gear to use when mining and that way, lives will be solved. It would also be regulated the type of clothes that need to be warn or how long they need to be inside a mine etc,” Mashego said.
Currently, the Blyde river is flowing brown catchment and the concern is that if it is compromised according to Nicholas Theron, Conservationist at Kruger to Canyons; it could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs in the Blyde agricultural district and immediately threatening to tourism economy of this iconic area and its surroundings.
Theron said that there have not been proper efforts to resolve this illegal mining conglomerate, as it has now succeeded to intensify to the Blyde River. He further said in their process of harvesting and diverting gold, the affected drainage line flows into the Blyde River system that flows into the Blyde Dam, which in turn supports one of the biggest citrus and mango farming districts in South Africa.
“The concern is around the impact made by chemicals used by the zamazamas to divert the gold; if the river is compromised, it could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs in the Blyde agricultural district as well as the immediate threats to tourism in this iconic area and the whole panorama route. such Zamazamas have also been penetrating the Bourkes Luck potholes and have been spotted in the spaces where hiking tourists visiting the landmark make a pass.” Theron said.
Linda Grimbeek, Chief Operating Officer at Kruger Lowveld Chamber of Business and Tourism has also raised concerns, particularly for Tour operators who she says are now worried about losing their clients due to possible criminal disruptions. during tours.
“The presence of zamazamas has sparked crimes such as ATM bombing in the area and that several parks and picnic areas had since been closed due to fear of being criminally attacked. Illegal miners are getting more prevalent in areas where gold is mined traditionally around Pilgrims Rest, Sabie and Barberton and this has sparked crime and sometimes it gets more serious with the bombing of safes. Luckily during the night these guys have access to explosives; they utilise them for such crimes to expedite money.”
“As far as tourism goes, parks and picnic spots have also been closed due to the high crimes that come with the territory of zamazamas. It is very difficult to deal with the zamazama issue as most of them are undocumented, so when more serious crimes happen, there won’t be fingerprints to trace them with.” Grimbeek said.