Workers leak details of potentially lethal conditions at Guptas’ Tegeta coal mine

Blasting within 500m of passing traffic without safety measures in place, resuming operations within days of having been suspended, and strangling small businesses by renegotiating contracts once the work is done.

These are some of the complaints workers and former contractors have against the Brakfontein Colliery near Delmas in Mpumalanga.

The mine is owned by Tegeta Exploration and Resources, which is co-owned by the Gupta family and Duduzane Zuma.

The complaints surfaced after the Mail & Guardian spoke to several farmers and contractors.

Most came forward after the colliery fell foul of a treasury investigation into its operations, which was leaked two weeks ago.

This found that the mine had approached Eskom for a coal supply contract – in 2014 – before it had a water use licence. The mine admitted to “contravening environmental laws”, according to the minutes of meetings it had with Eskom.

But mining was still happening. The M&G visited the site in February 2014, when stockpiles caught fire.

The treasury report also found that when the mine did get a contract in 2015 it supplied Eskom with substandard coal.

The utility’s power stations dot the landscape of western Mpumalanga and drive the entire coal industry in the region.

An employee at Oakbay Investments – Brakfontein Colliery’s parent company – starts a late-night phone call after the treasury report was leaked by saying the pressure to meet the Eskom contract put severe strain on workers, leading to shortcuts being taken. His conclusion about management is succinct: “They’re fuckers.”

His claim of shortcuts is corroborated by a former contractor, who left the mine out of fear that someone would get injured. “It was a nightmare,” the person said of the sleepless nights endured while working at Brakfontein.

The mine’s steep walls were not properly treated so could easily collapse with heavy rains or any seismic activity from the mining, the contractor said.

In long, detailed texts they said: “A senior foreman said he has to look the other way when he sees dangerous situations, as they [management] will not do anything to report it.”

While working at Brakfontein the contractor took cellphone photos of the mine – most of which cannot be published because the person’s distinctive shadow is captured. But the pictures have time and location stamps to show they were taken at the mine.

They capture a series of minor infractions: blue drums, upturned and punctured, leaking dark patches of oil into the ground; thick cables running exposed across the ground, with infrequent orange cones showing their route; and pools of water lying in unlined pits, tainted by oil and other waste.

Nobody has been seriously injured or died at the mine as a result of these alleged shortcuts, but workers have voiced their grievances in the past. In February employees downed tools, issuing a list of 14 grievances. These included a demand for management to resign and for outstanding wages to be paid. The colliery went to court and got an interdict prohibiting workers from intimidating the mine manager, forcing workers to return to Brakfontein.

Gideon du Plessis of Solidarity said at the time that workers were not allowed to join a union and had complained about working conditions.

Then there’s the matter of blasting taking place within 500m of the R50, a regional road, without it being closed. A local farmer says people in the area are afraid to drive past the mine when blasting takes place. The former contractor corroborates this, specifically mentioning one incident when blasting took place at about 2pm on a Friday, while cars were driving along the road.

These alleged offences concern various government departments, but Brakfontein’s activities mainly fall under the mineral resources department. Its regional office has issued several section 54 notices to the mine to suspend operations until concerns have been addressed.

Large mines generally cite the frequency of such notices and the length of the suspension of operations as crippling for productivity. But the locals who laid the complaints say the mine has its notices settled in days. A former contractor says: “I have never seen this in my 29 years of mining.”

The inspector who issued the notices has since resigned and moved to the private sector.

Contractors in the mining towns of Middelburg and eMalahleni say Brakfontein is a “difficult” company to work with. Most of these contractors are small and rely on quick payment to keep afloat.

Two companies that have done business with Brakfontein say the mine haggled with them over the price of the services they were providing, despite a price having been agreed on in their contract. “They will agree with you to pay 100% of the cost but then turn around and offer you 60%, take it or leave it,” says the head of one of the companies.

The two walked away from the problem, as have other companies.

Brakfontein Colliery did not respond to questions by the time of publication.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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