An underground fire has claimed the lives of 23 miners illegally working a disused shaft of the St Helena mine, in Welkom, on the Free State Goldfields, police said on Sunday.
A number of illegal miners, known as ”zama-zamas” were feared to have suffocated or burned to death while trapped underground by the fire — which was thought to have started last month.
Rescue teams were not immediately able to reach the source of the fire and several shafts were sealed to smother the flames, the Volksblad newspaper reported at the time.
Two groups of miners refused to return to the surface, despite negotiations with Harmony Gold.
It was thought the miners had fled eastwards from the fire to the President Brand, President Steyn and Bambanani mines where they could get fresh air and a chance to make their way out.
Security at the mines was increased and 120 of the illegal miners were arrested when they surfaced last Monday, said Free State police spokesperson Superintendent Motantsi Makhele.
He said they had appeared in court on charges of trespassing.
Some of the miners returned to the mine on Sunday to look for their missing colleagues.
They brought eight bodies to the surface at 11.30am. Another 15 bodies were later recovered. All had been taken to the state mortuary in Welkom.
Makhele said Welkom detectives had opened inquest dockets.
”Some of these bodies can still be identified, while others were already beyond recognition due to the period they spent underground,” he said.
”Post-mortems will be conducted on them, as well as some forensic tests on those which can’t be identified.”
He said the bodies would be available for viewing at the mortuary from Tuesday.
Provincial police commissioner Amon Mashigo said the illegal miners had no records and were possibly from neighbouring countries including Lesotho and Mozambique.
Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica said the deaths were regrettable.
”Much as the minister regrets the loss of lives, she also condemns those who engage in illegal mining as it undermines the mining regulatory framework and affects the image of South African mining,” said her spokesperson Bontle Mafuna in a statement.
President Thabo Mbeki ordered a safety review on Friday of all South Africa’s mines after a successful operation to rescue thousands of workers who were trapped underground.
A statement from his office said Mbeki had called on Sonjica to conduct an across-the-board audit following the accident at a gold mine near Johannesburg on Wednesday that left 3 200 miners stuck 2km below the surface for up to a day-and-a-half.
”President Mbeki said that the collective effort demonstrated in the rescue effort is testimony to a true South African spirit,” the statement read. ”Furthermore, the president has asked the minister to conduct an audit of all the mines to determine whether they meet health and safety standards as prescribed in law.” — Sapa