South Africa has witnessed a growing wave of armed attacks on local gold mines, Bloomberg reported, citing a recent case that occurred last December. In the incident, 15 thugs armed with AK-47 and R6 assault rifles took hostages and plundered the smelting plant at Gold Fields’s South Deep mine, at the country's landmark Witwatersrand basin.
The group managed to break into some of the vaults, but not the central one, and spent three hours there before escaping the scene with bullion worth a staggering $500,000.
This robbery was closely followed by an attack, albeit a repelled one, on Sibanye Gold Ltd.'s Cooke mine in early January.
Another headline-making incident occurred in May last year, Bloomberg recounted, as 50 robbers stormed security at Gold One International Ltd.’s smelting plant, with police refusing to get involved after being fired on by the criminals. The mining enterprise, the nation’s largest, has since zeroed in on private security, hiring professional guards that currently work shifts wearing bulletproof jackets and patrolling the mine premises in special armoured vehicles.
The measure seems to be prudent, as at least two mining companies, Harmony Gold Mining Co Ltd. and DRDGold Ltd., reported fatalities during assaults in the last quarter of 2019
“Mining companies are being attacked by thugs and armed gangs and there is a lack of police response”, said Neal Froneman, chief executive officer of Sibanye Gold Ltd., which countered an attack on its mine last month. “It eventually has a knock-on impact into society, it’s lawlessness, it’s anarchy", he contended.
Despite measures increasingly being taken to boost protection, the arms at the disposal of thugs and those of security personnel are worlds apart. The disparity in weapons is part of the problem, Gold One’s head of security, Nash Lutchman, pointed out, comparing the criminals’ AKs to the company’s shotguns and 9-millimetre pistols.
According to him, the attacks are thoroughly planned out long beforehand, and insider knowledge is apparently widely used as well.
There were 19 attacks on gold facilities last year, almost double the 2018 number, according to South Africa’s Minerals Council, despite the country’s new President Cyril Ramaphosa prioritising battling the sweeping crime rate in the country – an inheritance of the post-apartheid decades. An estimated 100 kilograms or more of gold was stolen in 2019 as bullion soared to a five-year high, although not all companies openly disclosed their losses, the council explained.