Illegal miners asked for body bags, Harmony says

Illegal miners digging for gold in disused and dangerous shafts started asking for body bags from Harmony Gold a few days ago, the company’s CEO, Graham Briggs, said on Tuesday.

“The criminal miners requested a few days ago that we supply them with body bags, and we have been doing such, and they have been bringing the deceased to the shaft stations,” he told a media briefing in Welkom. Also present was Mining Minister Susan Shabangu.

Describing it as a “tragic situation”, Briggs said the company then took the bodies out to the surface.

By Tuesday, 61 dead illegal miners had been sent to the surface by other zama-zamas, as illegal miners are known in the mining industry.

Free State police spokesperson Superintendent Sam Makhele confirmed that a further 25 bodies had been brought to the surface at Harmony Gold’s Eland operation on Tuesday, bringing the total since the weekend to 61.

Briggs said the victims were probably killed by smoke from an underground fire, almost certainly started by them. It happened in an old, disused part of the mine.
According to information gleaned from the illegal miners, the fire started accidentally on May 18.

“People get down to these areas and break down the seals and get into the shaft areas, either by bribery or forcefully ...

“The history of criminal mining in the Free State goes back to 1999, when we started to experience the first issues. It is something we had been working hard on for some time.”

About 290 illegal miners had been brought to the surface at the Eland shaft during the past two weeks.

“They were charged and will be criminally prosecuted,” the company said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

The arrests followed tightened security measures at shaft heads, daily underground search operations and improved access-control measures.

Harmony said it would not send its own employees on underground searches, as the abandoned areas were extremely dangerous.

Shabangu expressed the government’s condolences to the families of the dead miners.

She agreed that illegal mining in the Welkom area had been going on for some time and said it could not be tolerated.

“As government it is a sad day for us to come back here once again on the same issue.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said it was “shocked and dismayed” by the deaths. It said its affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, was monitoring the situation, and called for a full investigation.

Trade Union Solidarity also urged the Mining Department to investigate illegal mining in South Africa. Spokesperson Jaco Kleynhans said the Free State accident was the second of its kind this year. Twenty illegal miners died at the New Consort gold mine near Barberton in March.

In 2007, 23 illegal miners were killed in an underground fire in a disused shaft of the St Helena Mine in the Free State.

A task team consisting of all affected parties needed to urgently look at the problem. Kleynhans said it was a grey area nobody wanted to touch.

Coordination between the departments of mining and justice, the National Prosecuting Authority and police also needed to improve.—Sapa

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