Trucks that illegally "poach" sand from the area's riverbeds, are at the center of a major controversy in the Mopani District.

Poverty and a lack of jobs for illegal immigrants have been blamed for the illegal sand mining activities on the banks of the Letsitele and Letaba rivers in the Mopani District. The sand is mined by the operators before being sold to truck owners, who in turn sell the product to builders at high prices. Locals of the region refer to this as the “Marikana project”.

Though the mining project attracted criticism from community members at Dan and Petanenge villages, the illegal mining processes continue unabated, motivated by the intervention of the traditional leaders who want a share of the profits. A headman told Bulletin that it is the law within the traditional authorities that money be paid for minerals extracted from the area.

A truck waits in the river basin in Harmony block outside Gravelotte, to be filled up with sand by the illegal miners

He however said that they demand money from the owners of the trucks with whom they have agreements regarding the fee for the time the trucks would be allowed to load sand. According to him, it is not the traditional leaders who mine the sand, and the owners of the trucks who load the sand must take responsibility for their workers.

Donald Machona, one of the miners at a site near Tzaneen, said that they are forced to work in teams to fill the trucks. According to him, after filling a truck they are paid R400 by the driver which they must share among themselves.  Donald and the rest of the miners risk their lives by digging tunnels approximately 100 metres underground and mining the sand with buckets.

A truck driver spoke to Bulletin anonymously and explained that they use the sand miners for reasons mainly financial. “These guys are cheaper than the operators who use TLBs and other machinery, and they can also mine in places near the wetlands where the large machines cannot enter.”

In the meantime, farming and mining operations in the Gravelotte, Harmony and Ofcolaco areas have continuously expressed their concerns over the illegal mining operations which they have to deal with in their areas without any support from the Department of Mining Resources and Energy (DMRE). Some of the farmers who have raised their concerns, have even received death threats from the parties involved in the illegal sand mining.

Another large tipper truck filled to the brim with sand from the river basin.

An email was sent to the DMRE requesting clarity on the legality of the mining, after they were told that the DMRE had amended their regulations and issued permits to the trucking companies and the sand miners, allowing them to operate at the river basin. The concerned farmer, expressed anxiety over the impact to the environment and the safety of the illegal sand miners and requested from the department, letters of consent from various stakeholders which they allegedly sent to the trucking companies. He also threatened to take legal action against the department if the matter is not resolved.

“We see illegal sand mining has started again in the Harmony block,” the farmer said in his email. “A man claims that your department has amended the mining license to the river basin. I would like the department to respond ASAP on all surveys that have been done and require the consent letter or report from Disaster Management Limpopo, DMI survey report that allows the new amendment, a consent letter from all farmers that have agreed on this mining project, a consent letter from Water Affairs MP (cause the water rights fall under Loskop (Olifants) management plan, that have agreed on this mining project, a consent letter from KNP that have agreed to this mining project, a consent letter from the Department of Transport, and a consent letter from Environmental Affairs that have agreed on this mining project. As you know, we gave all info and have been against this problem.”

The damage caused to the river banks with hundreds of these large tipper trucks illegally loading sand, is a recipe for disaster, especially with the heavy rains expected this season.

In response to the farmer’s email, the spokesperson for the DMRE, Rudzani Mabogo, said that the department will conduct their investigations into the matter and provide feedback. “The email below has been noted and this Department will conduct some investigations and provide feedback. It must be brought to your attention that the DMRE can only act within its mandate and as for the other matters raised in the email, the relevant government departments can be engaged.”

***Editor’s comment: When there is no rain the sand becomes scarce and expensive. When it rains big commercial trucks come to destroy riverbanks harvesting sand, corroding rivers and disturbing the ecosystem balance. In most cases sand poachers bribe locals to get access to this community resource without permission from the local chief. Bulletin has in the past received many photographs of the illegal sand mining activities and large trucks belonging to big local businesses from our area, ruining the riverbeds to make a quick dime. We will start investigating this matter and in so doing, help pressure the authorities into taking action.