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15th June 2024

Photo courtesy of sahistory.org.za

I was invited to speak at a recent seminar for media practitioners hosted by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and Lawyers for Human Rights. After the workshop, I was more frightened than when I entered. Unless proactive and progressive measures are taken by civil society and the authorities, many immigrants, foreign nationals will be victimised and killed as we lead up to the national elections in 2024.

The telltale signs are already there. President Cyril Ramaphosa – clearly with political and economic resources in focus –  authorised the employment of 3 300 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) ”for service in cooperation with the South African Police Service (SAPS) to prevent and combat crime, and maintain and preserve law and order, under Operation Prosper”. The government further reported that the SANDF will, in cooperation with the SAPS, conduct an intensified anti-criminality operation against illegal mining across all provinces, from 28 October 2023 until 28 April 2024. The cost of the deployment was said to amount to R492 143 296. This was contained in a letter from the President to the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), Mr Amos Masondo.

The Bench Marks Foundation has taken issue with the rush to go for the troops as the government has failed to close mines properly for various reasons including costs. Indeed, there is no existing law or policy that has been implemented or effective.

Over the recent past there have been attempts to get the security forces involved to police the crisis and also because of the presumed costs to the country.  It has been reported that the “stolen gold” finds its way to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, and possibly China. News reports, in particular the eNCA one, suggest that more than “34 tons of gold arrived from South Africa between 2012 and 2016 this gold was likely exported illegally after being processed by small refineries in Gauteng that are at least 100 small refineries in Gauteng alone.”

It is worth bearing in mind that, from inception, the Minister of Police as well as the Minister of Home Affairs and other politicians joined in with others pretenders to the electoral throne in being anti foreigner.  

Historical view

The attacks of 2008, which our then leaders refused to label xenophobic, had similar origins. The Report on the SAHRC Investigation into Issues of Rule of Law, Justice and Impunity arising out of the 2008 Public Violence against Non-Nationals captured the context in their opening paragraph, thus:

“The scale of violence and displacement in May 2008 went far beyond any precedent in South Africa’s democratic history. Yet the 2008 mobilisation against non-nationals can only properly be understood within the country’s broader history of xenophobia and South Africa’s “culture of violence.” 1 Despite our formal transition to equality and democracy, violence is often still viewed as a legitimate means of resolving issues. 2 Non-nationals resident in South Africa are all the more likely to fall prey to violence, as South Africans often blame them for crime and unemployment, and view them as responsible for depriving “more-deserving” citizens of jobs, housing, and other economic goods. Outsiders are, therefore, often subject to intense discrimination and hostility from local communities.”

What is more, these attacks were not unexpected as a low intensity “war” against foreigners was long on the way. As a result, it is a matter of record (SAHRC) that the “May 2008 attacks, which targeted mainly community members originating from African countries, left at least 62 dead, hundreds wounded, and contributed to the displacement of 100,000 people or more.”

Whether we learnt from these actions and the reports or the warnings of today with openly fascist calls for repatriation and harm be caused on non-nationals, is still to be determined. But we do not have the luxury of time.

Mining Sector – always multinational 

We work with mining affected or impacted communities and believe that what is happening in the belly of our towns, cities and places where mining occurred or may still be present formally comes from the hands of former mine workers. These workers live either in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and wherever, but they have experience. How one defines their extractivism of the resources, mainly gold, is subject to debate as often these are the opening grounds not for a solution, but an attack on those who are vulnerable.

They are variously called zama zama’s, unregulated miners, criminal syndicates and gangsters but dominant in our media is the concept ILLEGAL, before mining. We will be living in a hole not to know that these activities cause real problems where they are located around communities, such as Maraisburg, Riverlea (Gauteng and elsewhere) and communities genuinely fear for their lives and cry out for safety.

Add illegal to your problem and…

I argue that the memory of the 62 people who have died during 2008, has taught very little to the authorities, government and the police and society at large, including the media.

A cursory glance reveals that the deaths of foreigners and the way it is reported, lacks compassion and a human rights orientation. It borders on the xenophobic and acts like the policemen who either stand by and watch abuses or, worse, are actually tacitly encouraging the violence, unwittingly.

Let me demonstrate by way of some media coverage:

“There have been a number of claims from both police and community members in affected areas that perpetrators of opportunistic crimes during the 2008 violence were inspired by media coverage of attacks elsewhere.68 It is likely that media images and reporting made visible the level of impunity enjoyed by many perpetrators, reducing the disincentive to committing crimes publicly” SAHRC report (2008)

[April 2022]
Times Live reported Four wrapped bodies of suspected zama-zamas found on Benoni road

A postmortem will be conducted to confirm the cause of death. “The deceased are suspected to be illegal miners.” Masondo said the police received an anonymous call about the bodies left next to the road. “On arrival, police found four bodies wrapped in blankets and plastic,” he said. The bodies have not yet been identified.
Comment: note the use of illegal

[September 2022]
The Independent Online Newspaper wrote:

Rustenburg – Gauteng police have launched an investigation after the bodies of six suspected illegal miners were found with gunshot wounds near the N1 freeway in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Gauteng police said.
The bodies were found near the Maraisburg off-ramp in Bosmont.
According to Gauteng police spokesperson Brigadier Brenda Muridili, police were informed about the bodies that were lying in an open veld next to the N1 freeway in Bosmont and New Canada, in the Johannesburg district.
Comment: the reporting of others were similar…note six suspected illegal miners…no space to say humans…

[November 2022]
The Sowetan reported that the “21 suspected illegal miners who were found dead at the Amatshe mine in Krugersdorp, on the West Rand, may have been trapped underground during heavy rains.

Mogale City mayor Tyrone Gray said while investigations were still underway to determine how exactly the men died, indications were that Tuesday’s heavy rains had prevented them from exiting the narrow tunnels…”

[January 2023]

This short article is filled with illegal and alleged zama zamas and clearly lacking compassion nor understanding of a wider problem and context.

[June 2023]
Zama-zama death toll may rise – MantasheMantashe called for Lesotho and SA to work together to combat illegal mining
(The Citizen and the South African Government)

Mantashe was speaking at the mine in Welkom where the accident occurred in May. A report of the incident was received by the department over the weekend.
“Illegal mining is not mining activity, it is a criminal activity. They get into accidents and die in numbers. They suspect 31 here [but] I can tell you it will be more than 31. In Krugersdorp, we saw the deaths of 21, in Gloria we saw the deaths of 17,” he said.
The minister said retrieving bodies underground will not be easy.
“We have agreed to put our heads together to find a solution. We can’t leave those bodies underground. That is what we are working on, but this is going to take a bit longer because there is no direct shaft that has a connection with this shaft.

[June 2023]
News 24 reported that: Investigation launched into the death of 31 Zama Zamas in Free State mine

Investigations have been launched into the deaths of at least 31 people in a mine last month in the Free State province that has been closed for around 30 years, the energy department said late on Thursday.
They are believed to be from neighbouring Lesotho – which reported the incident to South African authorities – and died in a ventilation shaft in Virginia mine in Welkom city, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) said.
Comment: rather cold and impersonal in the face of death of humans.

[August 2023]
SABC (August 2023) reported that “Dozens of residents of the Jerusalem informal settlement, south of Johannesburg, have spent the night at the Florida police station, following a shoot-out between suspected illegal miners.

Details surrounding the incident are sketchy. Xolani Fihla, spokesperson of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), says residents fled to the police station on Thursday night.“Last night, a group of scared residents sought refuge at the Florida police station fearing for their lives amidst the prevailing atmosphere of violence. MMC Tshwaku [Johannesburg MMC for Public Safety, Dr Mgcini Tshwaku] was on scene and would like to assure residents of Jerusalem that JMPD will work with SAPS and community policing forum members to put an end to this violence and terrorising of residents by the zama zamas,” explains Fihla”.
Comment: note the use of illegal and terrorising the residents. No other comment by an NGO or the so called Zama Zama’s was sought. 

News 24 on the same story argued not providing greater context nor mentioning the failure of the government in terms of mine closures. They argued similarly under the emotive headline: ‘We live like rats’: Desperate Joburg residents reveal their fear of zama zamas

In both these stories, not comment on the companies who have a legal, moral and societal obligation to close mines and rehabilitate the land to its former conditions.

[October 2023]
The CItizen reported on the Minister of Police thus:

‘In their yards are Lamborghinis’: SA cracking down on ‘big guns’ in illegal mining – Cele
The Police Minister outlined how the government is dealing with the issue of zama zamas in SA.
He said the suspects, six of them foreign nationals and three South Africans, live in fancy houses, with expensive furniture and fancy cars.
“We have moved up to the middle level. We have arrested nine people who are middle class of some form in the zama zamas.
Cele said the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) had already attached 51 one of the suspects’ cars and seven houses that could be worth R38 million.
Comment: Minister Motsoaledi and Minister Cele are regular features in this field.

Dr Elias Motsoaledi and Bheki Cele, Ministers of Home Affairs and Police respectively, are two of the key culprits.


These examples were just chosen as they appeared and there are many more. The point, however, is that they are dispassionate and seemingly – wittingly or otherwise – against these activities. Government and the corporations get a free hand and are rarely part of the story.

The phrase illegal becomes a licence to kill or do whatever. Journalists must take more care as words are costly.

I accordingly propose some pointers we may want to consider going forward. These are:

  1. Politicians must put a lid on it

We must address popularist rantings from within the ANC and outside of it as it is a growing problem that encourages other pretenders to do likewise. Those others out of power but vying for power like Mashaba, Herman and those from the Patriotic Alliance have no barriers in their hateful comments. These must be challenged if and when reported to various relevant authorities.

  1. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) must include in the pledge not to cause harm to foreigners and non-nationals. The Electoral Commision usually encourages that all contesting political parties and candidates sign a pledge committing them to promote free and fair elections in the country and free political campaigning and open public debate. Doing harm to others, in particular non-nationals, is a violation of the constitution and the pledge must reflect that. The pledge comes into existence from the day of the proclamation of an election until the announcement of results.
  2. We must dust off all those past resolutions from the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), including the report of the SAHRC quoted above here. In the final declaration of the World Conference Against Racism there are specific recommendations to the media and the media owners. They can start by calling out racism and xenophobia and providing more contextual and accurate reporting.
  3. Civil society organisations must champion the necessity of transforming the Southern African Development Community (SADC) into a Southern African solidarity Community with an economy based on social justice, decent work and possibilities for creative livelihoods, that favours self-employment and community sustainability. The free movement of people was long ago championed by The Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC) and the African Free Trade Agreements. These are pointers that should be used to further integrate and unify a region that has so many linguistic, historical and employment relations that go back to over a century. The subregion is imbued with immense wealth for the benefit of the many and not the few. It is time to take that foot forward and step away from kicking a brother or a sister.

By Hassen Lorgat