The families of three people who died after a disaster at Lily Mine near Barberton in Mpumalanga have turned to Parliament for help.
The bodies of Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyirenda remain unaccounted for since the accident in 2016. They were in the lamp room housed in a container above ground when it fell into a sinkhole.
Since then, operations at the mine have stopped and the mining company has been put under business rescue. Salvagers have deemed it too dangerous and costly to retrieve the container, with estimates of R300-million for the work.
That is why the mine’s business rescue practitioner, Rob Deveraux, told parliamentarians this week that any new owner of the mine should also pick up the tab to retrieve the container. “The retrieval of the container remains an integral part of every [business] rescue. A new investor must invest in a new decline and then retrieve the container. It is our position that the container must be retrieved under safe and controlled conditions.”
Government agreed, saying that the mine is still a viable commercial entity.
The department of minerals and energy’s chief mining inspector, David Msiza, said the mine could be reopened if a new investor decided to step in.
“We believe there’s still value in that mine. And if we reopen that mine we can start with the recovery process that has already started. There’s also an opportunity to employ over 600 people in that community as well,” he said.
MPs expressed their frustration at the slow progress of the retrieval of the container.
The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Dumisani Mthenjane was most vocal, claiming that the victims of the mine disaster have been forgotten.
“You [the department of minerals and energy] don’t care. Whenever we go to visit those families they say you haven’t been there,” he said. “There was a suggestion by the minister that we erect a monument, a monument for what? But these families still don’t have closure. Give it to them please.”
The families of the three employees have recently acquired legal representation to assist with getting more information on how the salvage operation could proceed and also to facilitate a financial claim against the mine for the loss of their loved ones.
The lawyer for the families, Wendel Bloem, said their main priority is to ensure the retrieval of the bodies and to ensure they are adequately financially compensated for their loss.
“The families have largely been left in the dark about what is happening there,” Bloem said. “And about whether there is a concrete plan to retrieve these bodies. The hope was that through the [parliamentary] committee presentations we’d know whether there was anything tangible.”
The families are still waiting for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to officially declare Nkambule, Mnisi and Nyirenda dead. Such a ruling could mean that mine management will be held criminally liable for culpable homicide.
Bloem said the involvement of the NPA was crucial and that, with a declaration of death for the three employees, the mine would also be slapped with fines for contravening mining health and safety regulations.
But for now, the families remain hopeful that a parliamentary process will signal the recovery of the bodies and a dignified burial.
“This committee gives me the strong impression that party political allegiance comes secondary to what is human dignity, and what is the right thing to do — and that is the retrieval of the bodies. It hit home to many people,” Bloem said.