South Africa’s growing threat of explosives smuggling is a ticking time bomb


On the morning of 3 June 2020, in Kagiso Avenue in Krugersdorp, South Africa, a grey Mercedes-Benz veered into the path of a cash-in-transit van, hitting it side-on. The van skidded to a halt amid a cloud of dust, and less than two minutes later, a blast sent pieces of the van flying – followed by bank notes drizzling from the sky. Confusion and chaos ensued after the swift getaway of the robbers, with passers-by scrambling for the notes that were left behind.

Soon after, law enforcement issued a statement condemning the incident and alerting civilians that it was a crime to pick up money after a cash-in-transit heist. More importantly, the public appeared to be oblivious to the deadly risks of what had transpired. The explosion was controlled but poorly executed, resulting in too much explosive being used. These explosives were undeniably obtained illegally through either smuggling or theft.

The smuggling of explosives has become a growing problem in South Africa and in the region. Originating from mining and construction industries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, these explosives find their way across the South African border and are used by illegal miners and organised criminals in cash-in-transit armoured-vehicle attacks and ATM bombings.

Most recently, reports have identified large amounts of smuggled explosives originating from Zimbabwe and intercepted by the authorities at the Beitbridge border. These explosives, sourced on the country’s black market, are often commercial explosives used in Zimbabwe’s mines. They are procured by organised criminal networks who smuggle them into South Africa. There have also been times when explosives were stolen from mines in South Africa and used in criminal endeavours.

Mitigating the smuggling of explosives would mean limiting opportunities for criminals to access them

In South Africa, explosives are regulated by the Explosives Act 15 of 2003, the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1996 and Regulations and the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993 and its Explosives Regulations, through the Department of Mineral Resources, South African Police Service (SAPS) and Department of Labour.

While on paper these acts and regulations provide a good system for the regulation of explosives, there are some problems with their effective implementation. The cooperation and collaboration that is pivotal in the partnership between the three responsible departments is often lacking in practice.

For example different actors are responsible for the safety of the explosives at different points. At the point of manufacture, the Labour Department is responsible for ensuring the Occupational Health and Safety Act is adhered to in the factory. Once the explosives leave the factory, their transportation, storage and use above ground become the responsibility of the SAPS.

Once the explosives are taken underground into the mines, the Department of Mineral Resources and the mines assume responsibility through the Mine Health and Safety Act. This can create confusion, especially if there is a lack of cooperation among the different actors responsible.

Explosives find their way across the South African border and are used by illegal miners and organised criminals

One way to remedy this would be to develop a task force comprising members of the three departments to develop an action plan detailing the role and responsibility of each department to promote collaboration and create synergy among them.

Regarding border control, there is a need for more collaboration among the various law enforcement officials such as customs and the SAPS. One of the key ways to address the challenge is to root out corruption and raise awareness among law enforcement officials around the threat that explosives present to national security.

Another issue, according to a senior law enforcement official interviewed by ENACT, is the lack of harmonisation regarding explosives’ legislation and regulations in the SADC region. This creates an administrative burden for the manufacturing and transporting of explosives across different source, transit and destination countries.

Although SADC currently has a Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and Other Related Materials, the protocol mentions little of the manufacture, storage, transport and use of explosives. Developing a protocol or regional strategy aimed at harmonising explosives’ legislation, such as the European Union Directive 2014/28/EU, would contribute to mitigating the threat of explosives smuggling in the region.

There’s a lack of harmonisation regarding explosives’ legislation and regulations in the SADC region

Such a strategy or protocol for the SADC region would enable the establishment of a single SADC market for the legal trade in commercial explosives, which would enable the harmonisation of the safety requirements at a regional level. It would also alleviate the administrative loopholes through the establishment of a regional administrative system to supervise the transfer of explosives and ammunition across the region.

Such a strategy would also promote cooperation in the region among the various actors and agencies responsible especially for transporting explosives. The development of the strategy would require the involvement of, among others, law enforcement agencies, government departments, mining industries and the banking sectors of the SADC region.

It’s important to note that while a strategy on the control of explosives won’t eradicate the smuggling of explosives in the region, it should deter organised criminal networks from doing so, especially if the previously mentioned measures are developed and implemented.

In short, there is a need for greater collaboration among public and private sector stakeholders in dealing with this challenge. Mitigating the smuggling of explosives would mean limiting opportunities for criminals to access them for cash-in-transit robberies, illegal mining and ATM bombings. This would also reduce the risk of injury to innocent bystanders and promote public safety more generally.

Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT and Willem Els, Senior Training Coordinator, Complex Threats in Africa Programme (CTAP), ISS

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