Illegal sand mining in KZN continues to destroy Illovo River

Miners merely move upriver as blue-chip companies continue to support operations, unaware of the illegal origin of the sand.

Since the South Coast Sun first reported on illegal sand mining on the Illovo River nine years ago, nothing has been done about it until last week. The river is still in a deplorable condition for a reported 18 kilometres inland from the steel bridge in Lower Illovo, thanks to the illegal mining operations.

Massive excavations, now filled with water, line the river banks that were once fertile agricultural land. The banks have been dug away to bedrock, which consists of large round stones. Piles of debris, eroding banks and a wasteland of environmental disorder greet the eye in every direction.

The illegal sand mining was first reported on in 2013, when South Coast Sun was taken on a tour of the river. The ravaging effects the mining had already wrought on the river were clearly evident, but it was nothing in comparison to what was seen this week. In some places, the original riverbank can be seen more than 10 metres above from where an excavator mercilessly reaches in to wrench out yet another bucket load of sand.

ALSO READ: World Environment Day: The world’s 10 biggest battles for justice

Barges on the river relentlessly suck up sand from the river bed. School children are forced to cross the river after the closure of the steel bridge for repairs in 2017, and sucking up the river bed sand has led to parts of the river becoming deeper and muddier. Several children from the surrounding communities have drowned in the last few years because of the holes created by the mining operations. A road running along the river also collapsed recently.

The steel bridge was closed after the devastating effect of the continuous stream of heavy-duty sand trucks led to its disrepair. Determined the bridge’s closure would not dent their pockets, miners built an illegal crossing over the river, and today, it is not only still being used by the sand trucks, but also by delivery companies.

Lower Illovo residents have been living with the noise and danger of the trucks running day and night through their suburb, despite a petition being signed by residents, and metro police’s promises to investigate.

In 2016, the department of water and sanitation (DWS) said it was getting a high court to interdict illegal miners and force them to rehabilitate affected rivers, and it was engaging with traditional leaders to help stop the degradation of rivers. Nothing further has come of that.

Ex-chairperson of the conservancy, Laura Taylor, surveys the damage done to the Illovo River by sand mining operations.

In 2014, a raid by authorities to close down illegal mines on the Illovo River had to be called off after angry residents confronted officials. Successful raids were done on the Umvoti River in the same year. However, no more raids have since been undertaken.

An added concern is the negative impact sand mining has on water quality, especially in a dry and drought-prone country like South Africa.

Amanzimtoti (Toti) Conservancy was elated by the arrival of three environmental management inspectors (EMIs) from the national department of mineral resources (DMR) in Pretoria last week to investigate illegal mining operations. Ex-chairperson of the conservancy, Laura Taylor, who has championed the cause for many years, accompanied them on a raid of the premises of two illegal mines operating close to the steel bridge.

DMR officials were horrified at the appalling state of the river and immediately shut down both operations.

The EMIs discovered that both sites were operating without the necessary permits. Photos were taken, including of a substantial number of receipt books revealing a large number of cash transactions that had taken place on the sites on a daily basis.

“It is our understanding that proper investigations of these sites and operations will now take place, including the possibility of tax evasion,” said Taylor.

According to Taylor, the two illegal sand mining operations on the Illovo River are operated by Nicole Ntuli and YC Naidoo.

“Ntuli explained that the mining was being done with the permission of the local tribal authorities, who were also being paid in cash for the right to mine. She also said that another miner, a Mr Zondo, was also mining in the area.”

Trucks are being loaded from the site that was closed down by DMR officials on July 9.

However, one of the miners has completely ignored the DMR’s stop order and merely moved their operation upriver, the South Coast Sun observed during a tour with Laura on Monday. At the second illegal mining operation that was ‘shut down’, the unabated convoy of sand trucks continues.

“Further investigations revealed the trucks are now getting most of their sand from the other side of the big bend in the river, which is over the hill, hidden from view, and only accessible on terrible roads. We saw Ntuli’s bakkie and container parked at the new site, and it appears to be business as usual. YC Naidoo’s trucks are also running from there, which means both have simply moved sites.

“We also witnessed sand trucks being loaded from the site that was closed down.”

Nicole Ntuli’s new site after DMR officials closed down her old one.

“Toti Conservancy … strongly urge[s] the DMR to bring the full force of the law against these illegal miners, and whomever they are colluding with, in the wanton destruction of our natural resources.

“We believe it is possible to mine sand legally, sustainably, equitably and without the terrible environmental destruction that is currently taking place. This lawlessness cannot be allowed to continue within our communities …

“We urge the authorities, police and local law enforcement to protect members of the public who bring these issues to light, as sand miners are notoriously aggressive in protecting their interests, and this is a large part of the reason why their activities go unchecked.”

The original riverbank can be seen more than 10 metres above the river.

How it all started:

VA Isaacs Sand Suppliers, a legal mining company that has been mining the Illovo River for 44 years, applied for a closure certificate, in terms of the DMR Act, to close one of its sites in November 2018. It informed the DMR enforcement department that illegal miners had moved onto the closed site.

After not receiving any response, the company’s owner flew to Johannesburg on June 18 to request a meeting with DMR’s director of enforcement, Aubrey Tshivhandekano. She met with Tshivhandekano the next day and on Tuesday, July 9, he and two other DMR officials visited Isaacs’ site, which they closed down after saying they did not fully comply with all of the department’s requirements. While there, Tshivhandekano saw the illegal mining operations on the go and visited both sites to issue stop orders.

The Illovo River has been destroyed by illegal sand mining operations.

What is sand mining and why is it so lucrative?

Sand mining is a practice that is used to extract sand, mainly through an open pit. However, sand is also mined from beaches, riverbanks, inland dunes, and dredged from ocean and river beds. It is used in the building industry to make concrete. Most of the sand mined from the Illovo River is reportedly sold to blue-chip companies that aren’t aware of the origin of the sand.

Quality determines the price, with a truckload costing R600 (poor quality) to R1,200 (good quality) from the Illovo River. The price is so good that it has attracted trade from as far as Richards Bay and Pietermaritzburg, and that is why residents complained about the high volume of trucks.

Legal miners have to pay a huge fee to government as a guarantee that they would rehabilitate the area they have mined to as close as possible before mining started. They have to restore the mining sites by planting new grass, trees and so on, however, the illegal miners don’t – they just close up the holes and move on to the next site.

For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.

Read more on these topics

environment illegal

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits