More soldiers deployed to fight illegal mining

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President Cyril Ramaphosa has authorised the employment of 3 300 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), in co-operation with the South African Police Service (SAPS), to combat crime under Operation Prosper, with a focus on illegal mining.

“Members of the SANDF will, in co-operation with the South African Police Service, conduct an intensified anti-criminality operation against illegal mining across all provinces, from 28 October 2023 until 28 April 2024,” the Presidency said in a statement on Thursday.

The expenditure expected to be incurred for this deployment amounts to R492 143 296.

The President set out the employment in a letter to the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), Amos Masondo.

The deployment of over 3 000 soldiers is a major step up from the 880 previously authorised by Ramaphosa under Operation Prosper: in a letter to the National Council of Provinces dated 23 October, Ramaphosa authorised nearly 900 soldiers be deployed to protect critical infrastructure and combat crime between 18 October and 31 March 2024, at a cost of R110 million.

Using soldiers to stop illegal zama zama mining and the threat it poses is, according to the SA National Defence Union (Sandu), “probably the best option”.

Pikkie Greeff, national secretary of the country’s largest military labour organisation, was interviewed on SAfm by Stephen Grootes in the wake of this being made public by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his defence and military veterans minister, Thandi Modise.

Using soldiers to curtail illegal mining has been a fait accompli for some months now according to a statement on an 8 August Cabinet meeting. At that time the southern Johannesburg suburb Riverlea had to endure the presence of zama zamas, who, in addition to their illegal underground activities, were reportedly also assaulting local residents. The statement reads, in part: “Cabinet welcomed the deployment of a special police unit, which is supported by the military in Riverlea, Johannesburg, to deal with illegal mining in the area”. defenceWeb approached the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Directorate Corporate Communication (DCC) the day the Cabinet statement was issued (10 August). To date there has been no response from Brigadier General Andries Mahapa and his team of communication officers.

Greeff, while not applauding the zama zama soldier utilisation as reported by the national broadcaster, told defenceWeb the equipment and training which SA Army soldiers brought to the deployment made the military the best option in this specific instance. This because it appeared the contingent deployed is “rapid, light infantry, in all probability with armoured personnel carriers for high mobility”. Further the “unscrupulous” approach of “heavily armed” zama zamas defending “their turf” and “no fear” of firearms reinforces the use of properly trained soldiers.

“The soldiers will be highly organised and appropriately trained for the threat illegal miners pose. The deployment will require intelligence, an aerial capability, a communications network, diesel and ammunition supplies as well as accommodation and rations,” Greeff told SAfm.

Modise’s recent words in the National Assembly indicated government assets, including Cabinet’s justice, crime prevention and security cluster, were “keeping tabs” on the zama zamas. She is reported as telling NA public representatives, “We as defence are on standby for whenever we are called…but if the President says it is time for us to come in, yes. Do we have a plan? Yes we do. Do we think that that plan if called upon will work? Yes we do. Do we see a role for the defence in dealing with the zama zamas? Yes we do…So whatever situation, if the head of state ever calls us to be in support of the police and other ministries, we will be ready”.

Darren Olivier, Director of African Defence Review, said using soldiers to combat crime is “still a terrible idea, one which harms both the SANDF and the SAPS and which will have long term negative consequences for civil military relations in the country. The government is out of ideas and throwing the military at problems it’s not suited for.”

Defence analyst Helmoed Heitman told Radio 702 the zama zama threat is beyond the level police normally deal with and “I am not normally a fan of deploying the military for internal policing but in this particular case I think there is a logic to it.”