South Africa’s Illegal Mining ‘Getting Out of Control’

South Africa risks losing control of illegal miners entering shut-down shafts after the activity swelled to involve about 14,000 people, said Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu.

There may be about 6,000 people working underground in abandoned mines and a further 8,000 on the surface, Shabangu said today. She spoke after meeting with police in Brakpan, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Johannesburg, near where at least 24 miners were rescued earlier this week after being trapped underground, possibly by a rival gang.

“If you have such a huge number, we are in a space where it’s getting out of control,” Shabangu said. “The bulk of people involved in illegal activities are foreign nationals, so it’s a cause for concern.”

Since gold was discovered in 1886 near what is now Johannesburg, South Africa has become littered with almost 6,000 abandoned mines that companies have exhausted for reserves that can be extracted profitably. Illegal miners re-enter the shafts, typically in search of gold, and mine the ore using basic equipment such as pick axes and little safety gear to make a living.

Such mining costs South Africa about 6 billion rand ($550 million) a year, Shabangu said. Taxpayers will also have to cover the cost of damage caused by the illicit mining if it’s not stopped, she said. Rehabilitating the country’s abandoned mines so that they are safe and don’t pose environmental threats would costs about $2.7 billion, the World Wildlife Fund said in a 2012 report, citing the South African auditor general.

Emergency services rescued at least 24 people from an abandoned shaft owned by Gold One International Ltd. this week. The men were immediately arrested by police, prompting others underground to refuse to emerge.

Those who didn’t come to the surface may have escaped using other connected tunnels that run for miles underground, Shabangu said today. The government has set up a forum involving police, local authorities, trade unions and companies to combat the problem, she said.

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