Smuggled explosives keep illegal mining syndicates in business

To block organised crime and protect South Africans from dangerous blasts, explosives trafficking must be stopped.

Acting on a tip-off, a South African Police Service (SAPS) team arrived at an unoccupied mine on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Everything appeared calm on the surface, but things turned violent underground when a battle erupted between illegal miners and the police.

Deep inside the mine, with temperatures reaching over 40°C, the police faced off against their armed adversaries. The miners had placed explosives at strategic spots in the tunnels to cause maximum damage to whoever tried to apprehend them.

Two hours later, and running out of ammunition, they surrendered. The gun battle left four illegal miners dead and two police officers seriously injured. The remaining miners were arrested and charged with trespassing and violations under the Explosives Act of 1956. Had their devices detonated, the incident could have been much more deadly.

Known as ‘criminal miners’ to police and those in the industry, these men form part of organised crime syndicates. This label distinguishes them from small-scale artisanal miners who operate without licences.

Syndicates obtain explosives on the black market and from legal mines and blasting operations

Criminal miners run efficient operations in which the profits outweigh the risks. Their crimes stay largely hidden and are seldom reported in the media. The Minerals Council South Africa estimates that illegal mining costs the country R7 billion annually and presents enormous potential harm to the public.

In 2018 officials in Johannesburg were alerted by two of South Africa’s largest enterprises, Transnet and Sasol, that illegal miners were blasting within metres of gas and fuel lines under the city. The area above housed a major sports stadium, highways and residences. Had the fuel pipes been damaged, the outcome would have been catastrophic.

City officials managed to convince the miners to withdraw their operations in that area. However nothing stopped them from moving to another part of Johannesburg, potentially putting infrastructure above their new operation site in danger.

Targeted and effective police investigations require detectives to determine the source of the illegal explosives. Syndicates running the illegal operations obtain explosives in two ways. The first is the black market, which supplies goods smuggled in from neighbouring countries, many of which – like South Africa – have outdated regulatory standards. The second is legal mines and blasting operations.

Poor tracking along the commercial explosives supply chain makes policing and investigations difficult

According to a mine manager with extensive experience in South Africa and Zimbabwe, personnel such as blasters and their assistants steal cartridges with every blast and sell them to the illegal miners. ‘Due to regulations and measures put in place, it is fairly difficult to obtain explosives by other means,’ he says.

A senior law enforcement officer who asked to remain anonymous, said South Africa uses around 300 million tons of explosives annually in legal mining operations, road building and construction. As a controlled substance, the possession and use of these materials fall under the Explosives Act, whose regulations were last updated in 1972.

Under these provisions, South Africa has several control regulators tasked with keeping the country safe from illegal explosives. The SAPS, together with the labour and mineral resources departments, are the primary regulators. The trade and industry, transport and defence departments are designated as secondary regulators. Explosives are considered illegal when the custodian lacks legal permits to store, transport or use them. This applies to commercially manufactured explosives.

Enforcing South Africa’s laws on the use and control of explosives is a complex matter. It requires contending with criminal syndicates that control illegal mining operations. Then there’s the commercial explosives supply chain, which is weak and open to exploitation. Poor controls and tracking along this supply chain make policing and investigations difficult. For instance, explosives cartridges and detonators are easy to conceal because they aren’t individually marked.

Police are forced to use outdated 1972 explosives regulations that lack track and trace provisions

The work of law enforcement officers is governed by outdated explosives regulations from 1972 that lack track and trace provisions. The most recent regulations for the dormant 2003 Explosives Act would help police enormously. They require that explosives cartridges and detonators be individually marked to enable computerised tracking and tracing. Unfortunately, these regulations have not yet come into operation even though the president approved the updated law in 2003. 

Colonel Jurie van Staden, Commander of the SAPS’s Explosives Control Section, has emphasised the need to implement track and trace technology in the supply chain of commercial explosives. This will strengthen the control of explosives and curb the trafficking of illegal explosives.

If, for example, illegal explosives used in a crime or illicit mining operation are traced back to a legal mine, investigators could determine how they were removed and hold those responsible to account. Similarly, if illegal explosives are linked to the black market, the manufacturer could be identified, and police could verify where in the supply chain the explosives were diverted.

As things currently stand, there is little scope to enforce such an initiative. The track and trace system can be implemented only when the 2003 Act and the 2019 regulations are approved. They are currently awaiting sign-off by the Minister of Police Bheki Cele. Until then, law enforcement officers will struggle to curb the threat of illegal explosives and the various networks capitalising on this loophole.

Richard Chelin, Senior Researcher and Willem Els, Senior Training Coordinator, ENACT, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.

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