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DA shadow environment minister James Lorimer had his hopes of a breakthrough in the war against organised mining criminals dashed when ANC and EFF members of Parliament’s task force refused to visit an illegally-worked open pit coal mine. This was the second site earmarked during Saturday’s visit to Emalahleni (Witbank), one which had avoided typical Potemkin-village staging by bureaucrats. But as Lorimer explains, the risk of getting their shoes muddied apparently took precedence for the R95k a month taxpayer-funded ANC and EFF deployments. In this interview with Alec Hogg of BizNews, the DA veteran unpacks how illegal mining has become big business in SA’s coal mining centre, with criminal syndicates leasing heavy duty diggers and dump trucks to illegally strip-mine coal sold wholesale into the system at massive profits. Lorimer explains how crime is facilitated through the deliberately blind eyes of those paid to protect society against such abuse. Including, it appears, some Parliamentarians.
Excerpts from the interview with James Lorimer
Well, illegal mining has been a huge problem for a long time, and I’ve been banging on about it to people, ignoring it. And then, of course, the horrific events of Krugersdorp happened where those women were raped by people thought to be illegal miners. Many of them were. And all of a sudden, the ANC government discovered there’s a thing called illegal mining and it’s a problem. And since then, they have been very strongly motivated to go and get to grips with the problem. So three portfolio committees from Parliament’s Mineral Resources and Energy, which is mine, also Home Affairs, which deals with foreigners and illegal immigrants and the Police Portfolio Committee have been touring the country every weekend looking at illegal mining hotspots, and it has been very interesting. And so this was part of the Mpumalanga leg. Now this was a visit which should have been a great credit to the ANC chair of the committee, because I said to him, Look, I know Emalahleni and if we go there, the department in that province, which is headquartered in that town, is notoriously corrupt. The moment they know where we’re going, everything will be cleaned up in advance. And this is always a problem with parliamentary oversight committees. You know, they go there, this huge train of secretaries and security men and with vehicles escorted by blue lights. And it’s not exactly something that can provide an impromptu view of what’s going on. Everybody knows in advance they can clean up and you get a kind of Potemkin village effect, so that you see things that aren’t really there.
On how he got involved
The backstory was that in May this year, a colleague who’s a DA MP who lives in the province got hold of me and said there was an issue. There’s a suburb called Duvha Park, just on the outskirts of Witbank. And they’d been plagued by smoke, coal smoke from burning coal fires, constantly burning coal fires. And that burning coal was set alight through illegal mining activities on an old part of a mining site owned by Thungela – the old Anglo Coal. The reason it hadn’t been mined formery was because it was too close to power lines and a provincial road. So you can only mine up until I think it’s 500 metres within one of those, those bits of infrastructure. There’s this whole strip of land which had very rich coal underneath. The problem with coal in that area is as soon as you take it out and you expose it to the air, it’s very easy to spontaneously combust. So you had these open seams, these piles of coal that were burning, and it was in nobody’s interest to put them out. And of course, once coal is burning in a big heap like that, it’s also very difficult to put out. And the fumes were invading the suburb.
There was like one kid who was hospitalised and people were getting headaches from the carbon monoxide. It was a bad situation and nobody was doing anything. The municipality did nothing. The local department of mineral resources and energy office is just nine kilometres away. They did nothing. The police did nothing. The mine did nothing. So I went to have a look and I found they knew we were coming. So there was nobody there. But there were three or four yellow machines in the area. Because make no mistake, these guys are not going to shovel. They go with professional equipment and the whole chain was explained to me – how it works is that somebody buys up end-of-life, machine mining equipment, you know, the huge dump trucks and the diggers, and then they rent it out to somebody and they rent it out for maybe 100 grand a month or whatever it is. And the guy goes off and uses that to mine illegally, and with two machines, a truck and a digger, it was explained to me that you could maybe walk away with 6 million around a month profit. Big money.
On the intention of the parliamentary committee in the area
The intention was to take them along there to explain how it all works. Because as it had been explained to me by people in the area and, and a mining engineer just so they could put that in because, you know, the culmination of this committee visiting process is going to be a report on illegal mining to parliament, which is going to have certain recommendations. Those recommendations, one would like to be as comprehensive as possible, and so therefore they need to have as good a view as possible of the whole business of illegal mining or mine crime, as I like to call it, because illegal mining has so many different aspects. It ranges from some poor bloke with a chisel and a headlamp working in a three metre deep hole on Roodepoort Road through to these guys I’ve been talking about, with big yellow machines digging for coal or further up in Limpopo, digging for chrome.
On how you sell illegally mined coal
Here’s a question and it hasn’t really been addressed. You could either hit the informal market, but that’s not where you’re going to get money. I suspect what’s happening is either it’s being taken directly to export and it’s being washed somewhere along the way or it’s simply being infiltrated into the normal coal value chain. So there’s some slightly dodgy operator who runs a coal washing plant. Somebody turns up with some trucks of coal and says, Listen, I can let you have these on a discount. You get to make the extra money. You get to up your production figures. Here you go. Cash transaction. So I suspect that’s how it becomes legal coal.
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