The government has rejected claims by the South African Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe that Lesotho is sabotaging South Africa’s economy.
Mantashe made the claim after news broke that at least 31 suspected illegal miners, believed to be Basotho nationals, had died in a ventilation Shaft 5 Virginia Mine, in Welkom, Free State province.
In a statement last Thursday, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) said the message that a group of suspected illegal miners died in a mine ventilation shaft on May 18 this year, was relayed to the High Commission of South Africa by Lesotho’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations.
The shaft, according to the statement, was last operated in the 1990s. High levels of the toxic gas, still present in the shaft, prevent efforts to exhume the bodies.
Mantashe told a South African broadcaster, Newzroom Afrika, on Friday that the survivors of the tragic incident ran to Lesotho to report without informing any South African authorities.
“This incident, more than any incident, has confirmed our view that this thing of illegal mining is actually economic sabotage, it is a war on our economy and, therefore, those who died there are almost like soldiers dying in combat,” he said.
Lejone Mpotjoane, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, and his colleague, Mohlomi Moleko who is Minister of Natural Resources, rebuked Mantashe during a press conference on Monday.
“As the government, we say it is wrong for him to say that is an economic sabotage. We cannot sabotage the economy of South Africa,” Moleko said.
“It is probably not only Basotho who are trapped in the mine. Him saying that this is economic sabotage gives the impression that we sent those people to go and sabotage the economy of South Africa, and that is incorrect,” he added.
Mantashe had also said that Moleko “ran for cover” when he called him to discuss the issue of illegal mining during the Mining Indaba in February this year.
“We have not had that discussion, he is not keen to have it and we will still put the proposal,” Mantashe said.
The 2023 African Mining Indaba was held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 6 to 9 February.
The theme of the conference was Unlocking African Mining Investment: Stability, Security, and Supply.
Moleko on Monday denied he avoided discussing the issue of illegal mining with Mantashe during the Indaba.
“He (Mantashe) spoke about our meeting at the Mining Indaba and indicated that I did not show much interest in addressing the issue of the illegal miners. The reason I went to the Mining Indaba was to talk about energy issues,” he said.
“However, we still discussed the issue of illegal miners. I was the one who initiated the meeting with him and the reason I wanted that meeting was to affirm our relationship because our economies are intertwined,” he added.
The high price of gold in recent years has seen the proliferation of illegal mining activities in abandoned mines, especially in the Free State and Gauteng provinces.
Many Basotho men, desperate to put bread on the table for their families, now migrate to South Africa to work in those abandoned mines.
Known as zama-zamas, illegal mining gangs are considered dangerous as they are usually armed and are known to fight violent turf battles with rival groups.
Mpotjoane admitted on Monday that Lesotho’s poor economy was contributing significantly to acts of illegal mining in South Africa.
He also stressed that Lesotho condemned such illegal activities.