News reports this week that more than 60 illegal miners died in a single accident in an abandoned gold mine has underlined the human cost of South Africa’s deepening recession.
The latest in a string of illegal mining accidents occurred in part of a mine shut down by Harmony, the world’s fifth-largest gold mining company, in the Free State. “We suspect there was a fire on the May 18,” said Tom Smith, chief operating officer for Harmony’s south region.
“We never saw any smoke. Over the weekend [30 May] we were informed by other illegal miners that people had died,” he said. Fellow illegal miners had brought the bodies to the surface.
Illegal miners and gold smugglers have long exploited abandoned gold mines in South Africa and often stay underground — unnoticed — in extremely dangerous circumstances for months at a time. The Eland shaft where the fire occurred had last been mined more than five years ago.
It was still not clear whether more miners had died. In a statement on June 1, Harmony indicated that it would not deploy its own employees on underground searches, as “the abandoned mining areas where the criminal miners have been active are extremely dangerous”.
Smith said abandoned mines lacked the necessary infrastructure and safety equipment.
Lesiba Seshoka, spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers, said: “It is extremely dangerous, particularly if shafts have not been maintained for a long time. Many things can go wrong: rocks can fall on you, you can die from suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning.”
According to Jabu Maphalala, spokesperson for the Chamber of Mines, illegal mining is a widespread problem in the country but there ware no figures on the number of people involved or the cost to the industry.
But, considering the risks involved, Smith commented, “It must be lots of money.” He noted that the miners are usually controlled by highly organised syndicates and are often armed.
Down and out
Most observers suggest that the spike in illegal mining is the result of near record gold prices combined with soaring unemployment, and an increasing number of desperate South Africans and people from neighbouring countries, like Mozambique and Lesotho, willing to risk their lives.
“The mining industry has seen more than 50 000 retrenchments since the end of the third quarter last year ,” Seshoka said. The global economic downturn has weakened demand for minerals, putting resource companies under pressure and leading to widespread layoffs in mining and related sectors.
Official statistics in May put South Africa’s official unemployment rate at 23,5% as the economy entered a recession for the first time in 17 years.
The number of people out of work rose to 4,18-million from 3,87-million three months ago, but the Congress of South African Trade Unions predicts that almost one million more workers could lose their jobs this year.
In the past two weeks, 294 “criminal miners have been brought to surface at the company’s Eland shaft in the Free State. They were charged and will be criminally prosecuted,” according to Harmony’s statement.
Smith said the mining companies were trying to work with police services and the Justice Department to address the problem, but targeting the illegal miners themselves would not change things. “These are ex-miners and unemployed people — we need to target the syndicates.” — Irin