SA cracks whip on ‘gold pirates’

Senior police officials said the South African Police Service (Saps) would be launching a full scale operation “shortly” to track down illegal “gold pirates” who have formed intricate underground gold syndicates.

Police say the syndicates include the miners, who bring up gold ore and smelt it into gold dust and nuggets, and syndicates that buy the nuggets for up to R100 a gram.

The syndicates have also reined in cross border gold smugglers, who then sell some of the gold locally, while a significant amount is smuggled out of the country.

Captain Neels Van der Merwe, who is in charge of a police unit that investigates the theft of precious metals, said the “gold pirates” were causing havoc in the local mining industry.

The “pirates” reportedly operate mostly from abandoned mines, but many have now shifted their operations to functioning mines that have lessened their output and are gradually being decommissioned.

Van der Merwe said apart from plundering gold worth millions of rands from the mines the “gold pirates” were posing a serious threat to the safety of legitimate miners.

He said the “pirates” set up booby traps and bombs to keep away police and legitimate miners.

The pirates are understood to be engaged in a “very lucrative business” that nets them between R65 000 and R80 000 for spending up to four months underground.

Recent reports said some of the miners, also known as the Zama Zama, have spent up to two years underground in search of the precious metal.

Two recent raids in the mining town of Welkom, south of Johannesburg have yielded an estimated five tons of gold dust. A recent police operation netted 60 gold pirates, but they say catching the pirates is made difficult by the conditions underground and there are still many more.

“It’s not natural light, it is very warm and the humidity is very high. There are dangerous gases and the places they work in are very dangerous for rock falls,” police Officer Mike Fryer said.

The pirates brave extremely harsh conditions to come up with the gold, including extreme heat and poisonous fumes that could result in death.

A number of the illegal miners suffer from mercury poisoning, as the toxic substance penetrates the skin and attacks the kidneys and the brain.

The miners also have difficulties getting food, which they reportedly buy from some of the legal miners for exorbitant costs that are sometimes up to four times as much as normal prices on the surface.

The police said they had received several reports of instances when pirates have died underground.

Fryer said in the event of death the pirates would leave the corpse in a shaft used by legitimate miners with a note containing his details and the contact details of his family.

South Africa is the world’s largest producer of gold despite the fact that more than two billion rand is lost every year through gold theft.

The country is in the midst of a crippling crime problem that has drawn concerns from across the continent and abroad.

December 2006
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