OPINION: The fight against illegal mining in South Africa requires a united front that leverages the strengths and capabilities of various institutions, writes Professor Sethulego Matebesi.
By Professor Sethulego Matebesi
ILLEGAL mining is flourishing in South Africa, with devastating consequences for the environment, local communities and the economy. Lately, illegal mining not only undermines the legitimacy of the mining sector but also poses serious threats to security and stability in the country.
In recent years, several reports have been about police failures and how South Africa has become a crime haven. Consequently, there have been calls for a specialised unit to deal with illegal mining.
This constitutes a buoyant approach. A first and obvious inference, though, is how South Africans will confidently laud such an approach when there are too many other serious crimes, heists, hijackings, murders, rape – that equally need attention by the South African Police Service (SAPS). A second, more profound inference about the trend to involve the South African Army in supporting police efforts to combat crime and illegal mining is whether SAPS has failed to deal with this crime.
Undoubtedly, the army, with its well-trained personnel and resources, can harness the strength of the police to tackle the issue of illegal mining more effectively. Additionally, the army’s valuable expertise in surveillance, intelligence gathering, and logistical support – essential for combating organised crime networks – may justify the need for a comprehensive and multifaceted response to this complex issue.
But at what cost? How have we arrived at this stage?
The cost should not be equated with financial capital but also the cost of failure to utilise critical feedback in remedying past police inadequacies.
Implications of vested political interests and malicious compliance, notwithstanding comprehensive legislation and political commitment to fight crime, including the adoption of an integrated justice system and a National Crime Prevention Strategy, illegal mining activities, often intertwined with other criminal activities such as money laundering, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, continue unabated in the country.
Let me hasten to state that, for reasons of the complexity of fighting organised crime, no single line of thought will realistically contribute to a better understanding of the fight against illegal mining. But who can begrudge those who argue that the challenges facing the SAPS cannot be addressed in isolation from the broader South African political context?
Today, the South African political landscape, aided by archaic control methods, has been shaped by two distinct concepts: vested interests and malicious compliance. These are among the leading measures used by the elite to maintain the status quo while deliberately manipulating rules and regulations to achieve personal or group objectives.
In some instances, vested political interest and malicious compliance created little tremors and had significant implications in others. Think about the potential consequences of these two challenges for democratic processes, public trust, and social well-being. In the realm of safety and security, vested political interests can impede much-needed policy innovation and reform, preventing the adaptation of policing governance systems to changing crime trends.
In the absence of robust safeguards against undue influence, increased transparency and accountability, and an engaged citizenry that demands ethical and responsible governance, many South African public entities – including the SAPS’s ability to fight crime – imploded.
A myriad of legislation of mine downscaling or closure in South Africa conforms to international best practices. However, illegal mining has increased over the years due to ineffective mine closures, evident from the number of abandoned mines and operations on extended care and maintenance.
Why have there been muted responses to a matter that poses risks to the lives of citizens? Yet again, one can point to the impact of vested political interests and malicious compliance. A united front is needed, but at what cost?
The fight against illegal mining in South Africa requires a united front that leverages the strengths and capabilities of various institutions. The collaboration between the South African army and the police marks a commendable effort in this regard.
But more importantly, a long-term view needs to be taken about the police’s ability to fight crime in South Africa. This involves some hard choices by the political elite. One such option is to rid SAPS and the public sector of the scourge of vested interests and streamline tactical operations to increase the speed and flexibility of policing in a changing world.
The ultimate goal here is not to develop better strategies to demonstrate police compliance but to restore confidence in a society where disillusionment and cynicism about the police flourish.
Realising these goals requires the political will to relinquish the malpractices that disrupt the effective functioning of SAPS. This represents a significant inflexion point for the South African political elite and police management.
* Professor Sethulego Matebesi is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the DFA.