The death toll from an underground fire that killed illegal miners at a disused gold mine rose to least 61 on Tuesday, Harmony Gold Mining said.
”Today [Tuesday] we found 25 more bodies,” said Tom Smith, head of Harmony’s operations in the Free State where the abandoned shaft is located. ”The bodies are not burnt. It seems more of a case of gas or smoke inhalation.
Illegal mining in South Africa’s abandoned gold mines often goes unnoticed because miners can sneak past security at one mine and exit from one owned by a different company kilometres away. The illegal miners can stay underground for months unseen.
Gold prices near record highs have made the risk taken by well-organised illegal mining syndicates even more worthwhile.
Harmony, the world’s number five gold producer, is particularly exposed to plundering by illegal miners compared with its peers, because it was built on a strategy of buying old, unwanted gold shafts and mines.
Smith said the bodies were retrieved by fellow illegal miners from depths of up to 1,4km.
He said he didn’t know how the fire had started, and reiterated that it was too dangerous for Harmony to send its staff to search for bodies.
”I don’t know if there are any more bodies down there, we just have to wait,” he said.
The illegal miners were killed in a fire over the weekend at Harmony’s Eland shaft, located in the central Free State. A similar fire at its marginal St Helena mine in the same province killed 23 illegal miners in 2007.
The Department of Mining, which is grappling with an escalating safety crisis in South Africa’s mining sector, has said dealing with illegal miners was difficult because it lacked enough staff to inspect producing mines, let alone disused ones. Illegal miners are also usually armed.
South Africa’s Chamber of Mines, which groups gold producers in the world’s third biggest source of gold, said illegal mining was a problem that individual companies were dealing with, but it had no figures on the value of gold stolen.
Police have conducted sporadic sting operations to arrest the illegal miners, but mine owners say catching thieves was difficult in the labyrinth of mines.
Minister of Mining Susan Shabangu expressed condolences for the deaths at the Harmony mine, and promised to visit the site of the deaths on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on Tuesday said it was ”shocked and dismayed” by the news of the deaths of the illegal miners.
Harmony on Monday said the bodies of 36 illegal miners were brought to the surface by fellow illegal miners at the Eland shaft on the weekend.
”Our affiliate, the National Union of Mineworkers, is monitoring the situation, and we demand a full investigation into this shocking situation,” Cosatu said.
In the meantime, trade union Solidarity has called for the Department of Mining to put together a task team to investigate illegal mining in South Africa.
”Not only are the illegal miners stealing gold worth millions of rands, but the ensuing accidents are always very severe,” said Solidarity spokesperson Jaco Kleynhans. — Reuters, Sapa