'I'll go down, I'm not scared to die ...'

Grieving families of illegal miners who died underground at Harmony Gold’s disused Eland shaft had not seen their loved ones since December and assumed they were job-hunting on the Reef, interviews conducted by the Mail & Guardian revealed this week.

Almost crying, Teboho Miziayifani (23) said his cousin, Thabiso Sekonyela, disappeared late last year.

“He left Lesotho in December and we thought he was in Marabastad in Pretoria.

“We’ve been looking for him for months and started to lose hope.
Then we heard on the radio that people died in the mines and families needed to come to Welkom to identify them.”

Said a weeping Matebello Mokete after identifying the body of her nephew, 21-year-old Lesotho national Tumisang Makhabane: “Tumisang left home with his friend last year in December. He said they were visiting some of their friends in Jo’burg. That was the last time we saw him.”

The interviews with families underscored how long the miners had been underground when disaster, probably in the form of poison gas or smoke, struck last week.

Seventy-six bodies had been brought to the surface and placed in the Welkom state mortuary by Thursday. The stench of decomposition in the street outside was overpowering.

The chief mortuary pathologist, Dr Yusuf Vahed, said the bodies show signs of dehydration and are extremely underweight for their height, highlighting the scant nutrition available to the miners, who spend between three and six months underground.

Vahed said the bodies were in an advanced stage of decay, suggesting that the miners may have died more than a week ago.

The tragedy at Eland has highlighted the enormous scale of the illegal industry. It is estimated that there are more than 3 000 zama-zamas (“chance-takers”), many from Lesotho and Mozambique, operating in the Welkom area alone. Seven hundred have been arrested in the past month.

Of those arrested, most are field runners suspected of being hired by syndicates.

Zama-zamas generally process the extracted ore after surfacing. But Harmony’s head of security, Ambrose Khuzwayo, said attempts to process the ore underground using mercury may have touched off an explosion.

The zama-zamas are said to bribe security guards and collude with legal miners to gain access to disused shafts. The asking price for an assisted descent is reported to be R2 000.

The illegals used a 30km underground tunnel, which links all the mines in the area, to gain access to Eland. In a vast mining area with scant security patrols there are multiple points of entry.

At the mixed-gender G hostel on the far side of Welkom, large groups of Basotho and Mozambican immigrants idle in the passageways.

The level of unemployment, poverty and squalor among young people here is appalling. Rubbish and water streaming out of broken water pipes create an evil-smelling sludge, which is difficult to navigate.

Throughout the hostel, extinguished fires have turned the ground a dull charcoal in areas where, we were told, most of the processing is done.

A resident, Charles, said processing happened at the hostel every day and illegal mining is “everybody’s business”.

“You see these flames here, it means they were operating early this morning. They’re hiding now because they know the media and police are looking for them.”

“Give me a chance to go down today, I’ll do it,” said jobless hostel resident Sibongile Jonga (18). “I’m desperate to get out of this poverty. I’m not scared to die or get arrested because even the police are involved in this.

“I don’t blame zama-zamas; in fact I’m encouraged by their initiative.”

Jonga said that despite a spate of raids by the police and soldiers, the illegal mining continues.

The M&G was told that representatives of the government and the mining industry will meet on Monday to discuss a specialised task team to bolster security in disused shafts.

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