Illegal miners are reportedly being killed without consequence amid evidence of mine-stripping.
Shocking evidence of beatings, possible executions and dozens of killings has emerged from contractors, workers and business people involved in Blyvoor – the controversial Blyvooruitzicht gold mine.
AmaBhungane has been told that more than 40 people – mostly illegal miners – have been killed since December, when well-connected Goldrich Holdings took over the bankrupt mine after its bid was accepted by liquidators.
Police and morgue officials have confirmed 20 killings since December, including four security guards, but admit more may have gone undetected.
Sources who have worked at or visited Blyvoor describe the mine as a “war zone” and “worse than Marikana” since Goldrich took over.
Goldrich is managed by Fazel Bhana and Thulani Ngubane, who were among those embroiled in the 2010 Aurora mining debacle.
Aurora, whose directors included Ngubane, Zondwa Mandela, Khulubuse Zuma and associates Solly Bhana and his son Fazel, took over two distressed mines with the promise of returning them to production.
Instead, Aurora was alleged to have stripped the mines’ productive assets and diverted tens of millions of rands from gold sales into the private accounts of its directors and associates, while thousands of mine workers went unpaid, deprived of their livelihoods.
Shades of Aurora
Now similar allegations are being made about Ngubane and Bhana’s new venture – although this time their takeover has allegedly been secured with blood and violence.
There is no evidence that Bhana and Ngubane are personally involved in the violence, or that Zuma or Mandela are involved in Goldrich.
Several workers, who were previously contracted to do work at the refinery plant at Blyvoor, told amaBhungane during a visit about two weeks ago that, in early January, shortly after the New Year, two men who were caught stealing cable were badly beaten by two “Congolese” security men and a “white man” one afternoon in front of the refinery plant gate.
“They beat them with cable wires. They had their hands tied behind their backs but they continued to beat them. They were telling the security that they weren’t stealing gold, they had stolen cable and that they should call the police rather.
“They were defenceless and pleading for their lives” was how the incident was described to amaBhungane.
Their bodies were allegedly later found in the dam at the mine, though this could not be verified.
Those who witnessed the beating said they were too scared to intervene because the security guards had guns.
One witness said: “Watching them being beaten was sickening and painful … I could not eat that day.”
But Goldrich denied the incident and put it down to “gossip”.
Now a video has emerged that appears to show the two men being beaten, although no independent confirmation could be obtained that the men were later killed.
AmaBhungane has obtained an eight-second clip of a much longer recording, which shows two men – bloodied and cowering in a doorway – being kicked and taunted while unidentified security personnel wearing bulletproof vests look on.
Leigh Roering, one of Blyvoor’s joint provisional liquidators, previously told amaBhungane that, after the mine closed in August, it was “overrun with zama zamas [illegal miners]”.
He praised Goldrich for its security measures, which had “secured the plant”.
But it appears that Goldrich secured it with lethal force – despite questions emerging about the company’s own right to exploit the mine.
In December, Goldrich’s management allegedly brought in a contingent of between 16 to 30 heavily armed private security guards, described to amaBhungane as “camouflage-wearing, military-like” men, allegedly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to take on the scourge of illegal miners.
These guards were in addition to locally employed security companies, of which there has been a high turnover.
A source who still works at the mine said: “The Congolese operate separately and keep a low profile, so very little is known about them.”
During an unplanned meeting with amaBhungane at Blyvoor’s Shaft Five in February, Ngubane, Bhana and the mine’s manager blamed most of the deaths at the mine on rivalries between the illegal miners themselves.
Ngubane said: “There are 200 zamas at one go, who strip the cable and take whatever gold remains there. Goldrich put the security in, which costs millions every month. And it’s the very same zamas who have killed four of our security.
“If someone comes with an AK-47, 150m away from where you are, and shoots [at] you with live ammunition? These zamas are the killers.”
Responding this week to allegations about the incident in which the two men were beaten and allegedly died, Ngubane said he was unaware of it. Security was not in his “scope” of work as Goldrich’s chairperson, but, he said, the illegal mining issue was “sad”.
“People do it because they really have no alternative. But it is not on. I am not saying people should be killed, or beaten up, but we are spending money to try and fix the plant. And the very same guys will come, the very next day, and steal the cable.”
A current Blyvoor employee said: “It is difficult to say who was responsible for the killings – the security or the zama zamas themselves.”
Police in the area appear outgunned by the illegal mining syndicates and have given tacit approval to the clampdown at Blyvoor. (See “Gang warfare places communities under seige”)
One police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “The party kind of stopped for the zama zamas when the Congolese guys came on the scene … They don’t take nonsense, those guys. If you take away those Congolese the zama zamas will take over that place.”
But, although the threat from illegal miners seems real, people working at Blyvoor, none of whom wished to be named, have claimed that the group of so-called “Congolese” have acted with impunity.
“In the first few months, I think from December and early January, the killings were rampant. It was war here. During that peak, it was totally lawless. You could shoot someone and no one would care,” amaBhungane was told by someone based at the mine for several months.
“It shocks me how cheap life is. It was a nightmare, that place.”
A potential Goldrich investor recalled seeing the company’s in-house accountant – a Bhana associate, who was also involved with Aurora – give the head of that security contingent R20 000 in cash “to buy ammunition” as recently as late February.
In January, Ngubane told amaBhungane: “The security guards are there to preserve our assets … At the end of the day they … have to account for whatever loss there is and how did people [zamas] manage to cross boundaries,” Ngubane said.
Several temporary workers told amaBhungane they were told by security guards they had permission to “shoot to kill”.
Ngubane denied that he or anyone at Goldrich “would … instruct any security to kill anyone”.
There is little doubt the illegal miners are armed, dangerous and predatory, but it may be asked by what right Goldrich is using lethal force to defend assets while it is accused of doing exactly the same – stripping the mine of its productive assets and remaining gold ore stockpiles.
During the past six weeks, amaBhungane has received many tip-offs from well-placed sources making similar allegations: Goldrich is there to “make money, not to mine”.
A former Blyvoor contractor told amaBhungane: “They [Goldrich] have even started to break down the workshops and everything. They are loading all the spare motors – it is all gone, nothing is left.
“It is just being stripped, stripped, stripped. That plant will never in its life start again.”
These claims have been strenuously denied by Goldrich, which has said it is recalling miners to work at the mine’s operational Shaft Five.
AmaBhungane has established that a company brought in to inject capital into Goldrich, Ramharakh Mining, last week terminated a partnership with Goldrich.
A source close to Ramharakh said: “They are tearing everything apart; whatever was left behind they will take out …
“There is absolutely no underground mining taking place, no jobs created … What [they] are doing is cleaning the leftover sand [of gold] from previous mining activities at Blyvoor and filling their pockets, with no intention of further mining whatsoever.”
Bhana denied this and said the company has to date only “sold redundant [scrap] material to the value of R1.29-million”.
“No gold has left the mine to be sold at any time since Goldrich took control of the mine. We categorically deny any such allegations and repudiate same with the contempt it deserves.”
Bhana offered, “in the interest of transparency”, to allow amaBhungane “a thorough walk through of the plant and all the relevant documentation”.
Meanwhile, the liquidators were in court this week mounting a second bid to evict Goldrich, after a similar action failed in January.
AmaBhugane understands they filed two urgent applications in the Johannesburg high court against Goldrich on Wednesday – to interdict Goldrich from removing any assets and an application to overturn the sale agreements signed between the liquidators and Goldrich.
The matters are due to be heard early next week.
Ngubane confirmed that, in the meantime, Goldrich has applied for business rescue.
Gang warfare places communities under siege
The small town of Carletonville west of Johannesburg seems peaceful as people go about their business but mention the words zama zama [illegal miner] and facial expressions change to fear.
Even the local police appear to be intimidated.
According to several policemen and locals, illegal gold mining syndicates have taken over the town, thanks to the closing down of Blyvooruitzicht gold mine (Blyvoor), which was liquidated last year.
The mine, left unsecured by its previous owners, Village Main Reef, became a haven for thousands of illegal miners who flocked there to sift through the mine tailings and retrieve gold dust.
It is alleged that most of the zama zamas are illegal immigrants from Lesotho.
In Carletonville, they have settled in several settlements, including Matariana, Mphahla Village, Vuka Search (S shaft) and Mohaleshoek.
Two main gangs are most feared by the community, the Terenes and Matlamas, who fight over territorial rights and for weapons. But they do not only fight at the mine; the war is spilling over into the settlements and community members are being caught in the crossfire.
The local Carletonville Herald reports almost weekly on gruesome incidents of shootings, stabbings and hackings.
The gangs are also notorious for rape and armed robbery.
According to three local police officers who did not want to be named, “zama zamas are highly organised, well-resourced gangs and ruthless”.
AmaBhungane reporters were advised not to go to the informal settlements, especially Mphahla Village.
“It is not safe to go there. Those guys will shoot you dead; they are very protective of their turf. A police van doesn’t go [on] patrol because it will be shot at … Basically the settlement has become a no-go area,” a police officer said.
He said police were also scared to patrol Blyvoor at night as the grass was long and the area dark.
“You can’t see them but they can see you.”
The local police, in partnership with the province, have conducted several raids at the Blyvoor mine and in the informal settlements but it is not a sufficient deterrent because “these guys just come back a few weeks later”.
“For [every] three that you arrest, hundreds come through to South Africa.”
The officer admitted that the police were overwhelmed and helpless and believes that the “zama zamas were left at the mine to do as they please for far too long and now the situation is out of hand. We are a small station. There is only so much we can do.”
It is believed that the number of people killed over the past two years – mostly illegal miners – amounts to hundreds because, at night when the zama zamas start their shifts, Blyvoor becomes a battleground between the gangs shooting at each other and between the illegal miners, police and security guards.
Five security guards were killed by the illegal miners last year.
The large number of deaths has attracted the attention of Lesotho government officials. Last week the Lesotho ambassador to South Africa and two Lesotho Cabinet ministers went to the townships to speak to the zama zamas. Apparently dead bodies are being sent back to Lesotho every week for burial. – Sally Evans, Justice Kavahematui and Tabelo Timse
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