(Bloomberg) — At 10 p.m. on the second Sunday in December, a criminal platoon armed with AK-47 and R6 assault rifles stormed one of the largest gold mines still operating on South Africa’s fabled Witwatersrand basin.
Moving with military precision, the 15 attackers took hostages and plundered the smelting plant at Gold Fields Ltd.’s South Deep mine. While failing to break into the main vault, the gang escaped three hours later with gold concentrate worth as much as $500,000.
Violent crime soared through a decade of kleptocracy and graft under South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma. Gold mines offer soft targets for syndicates that previously specialized in cash-in-transit heists. Their foot-soldiers outgun a demoralized police force and pile woes on a gold industry in the final stages of a decades-long death spiral.
“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 repelled an attack on its Cooke mine two weeks ago. “It eventually has a knock-on impact into society, it’s lawlessness, it’s anarchy.”
There were 19 attacks on gold facilities last year, almost double the number in 2018, according to South Africa’s Minerals Council. More than 100 kilograms (3,527 ounces) of gold was stolen in 2019 as bullion rose to a five-year high, although not all companies disclose their losses, said the council, which represents the nation’s largest miners.
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