Deadly accident puts illegal mining under spotlight

At least 61 miners were killed when fire tore through an abandoned gold shaft in one of South Africa’s deadliest mine accidents, highlighting the lethal dangers facing illegal diggers.

Twenty-five bodies were recovered on Tuesday — adding to 36 already found — after a fire reportedly broke out in the disused shaft owned by Harmony Gold, the world’s fifth-largest gold producer, in central Free State.

“Twenty five bodies have been discovered this morning,” police spokesperson Sam Makhele said.

Police, mining authorities and unions said they did not know if more bodies remained underground in the shaft near Welkom in the second major accident this year, after 20 illegal miners died in March at another mine.

Marian van der Walt, Harmony Gold’s executive corporate and investor relations officer, told the Mail & Guardian Online on Tuesday: “Illegal miners break through barriers, which then exposes them to safety risks.” She said Harmony had beefed up and deployed more security to deal with illegal mining. “We have improved access control and are searching miners for food and money when they go underground.” She said many of the illegal miners spend a number of days underground, and “pay large amounts of money for water and food”.

But National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesperson Lisiba Seshoka disagreed. “We believe these guys only become illegal miners when they die. Where do they take the gold to, who buys it and, more importantly, where do the so-called illegal miners get these large amounts of money to pay for bribes [for water and food]?

“Our suspicion is that experienced executives who have been in the industry for a while are working with these miners.”

The NUM believes the only way to deal with illegal mining is for mining companies to close operations that are no longer in use, so that they can’t be accessed. But according to Seshoka, the mining companies say they can’t do this because the mines are interlinked. “The mines must be closed properly so that they don’t become death traps,” he said. He also said it is the mining companies’ responsibility to control who gets access to the mines. “If these companies are at fault, the full might of the law must deal with them.” He called on a change of attitude from mining companies.

Illegal mining in the bowels of South Africa’s abandoned pits has long plagued the world’s third-largest gold producer, with diggers living sometimes for months underground to smuggle the precious metal.

Harmony chief operating officer in the Free State Tom Smith said that the 25 bodies found on Tuesday were brought to a station 1,4km underground by fellow illegal miners, where they were discovered by employees pumping water.

“We’ve got no idea” if there are more bodies, he said.

The company said 294 illegal miners — known as “zama zama” (try try) — had been arrested over the last two weeks at the mine, 240 km south-west of Johannesburg.

Safety concerns
Safety at South Africa’s mines was thrown under the spotlight in February with a government audit finding that normally operating mines met just 66% of regulations.

The gold sector, which is South Africa’s main foreign exchange earner, was safer than other mines, meeting 70% of government regulations, the audit found.

In 2008, 168 miners died in South Africa — a 24% improvement on the 220 killed in the previous year — and 73 miners have been killed so far this year. That figure excludes deaths among illegal miners.

One of the country’s most recent mining tragedies occurred in 1995 when 104 miners were killed along the Vaal Reef, south of Johannesburg.

National Union of Mineworkers spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said the Harmony Gold accident was the worst involving illegal miners to date.

Crime syndicates are behind the Welkom illegal mining, the Sowetan reported on Tuesday.

“There are people down there who go to sell food and cigarettes. They make a killing because they charge R100 for a packet of cigarettes,” a former illegal miner was quoted as saying.

“I stayed underground for two months searching for gold. You cannot come out until you get what you are searching for.”

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