/ 2 November 2021

‘It is no longer safe for Denel to be based in Macassar’

Safrica Accident Explosion Munitions
This picture taken on 3 September 2018 shows emergency vehicles outside the Rheinmetall Denel munitions facility in Macassar, about 45km from the centre of Cape Town, after an explosion at the facility killed at least 8 people and injured more. (RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)

Opposition parties, civil organisations and workers’ unions want action taken against Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) after an explosion on Sunday evening at the state-owned entity’s Somerset West depot near Macassar in the Western Cape.

RDM’s chief executive, Jan-Patrick Helmsen, described the incident as “a fire that broke out in a building at our Somerset West site”. He confirmed that it is the fifth incident since the blast in 2018 in which eight people died and one person was injured. The 2018 incident is still being investigated by the department of employment and labour with its final sitting is to be held in December. 

No injuries were reported in Sunday’s explosion, which lit up the sky

“The fire was contained to the N86 magazine building and was extinguished by our internal fire department and the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service, who reacted in line with all of our safety protocols. A thorough investigation will be conducted to determine the events leading up to the fire,” read a statement released by RDM hours after the blast.

Sunday’s explosion caused outrage among opposition parties, civil organisations and workers’ unions. 

Peter Helfrich, the Democratic Alliance’s ward councillor in the area, said “the situation at this site is becoming untenable”.

“Residents feel it is no longer safe for Denel to be based in Macassar,” he said in a statement shortly after the explosion. “Having a facility like this next to a residential area is extremely dangerous. Denel should move away to a place where there are no communities close by. It is not acceptable for residents to have to live in fear like this all the time.”  

Pieter Groenewald, the leader of the Freedom Front Plus, said safety problems at the plant were no longer just a “ticking time bomb”. The most recent explosion “raises alarming questions about operational safety and continuing with production at the plant before the matter has been thoroughly investigated from all angles”. 

UASA the Union said the state-owned weapons manufacturer’s “reckless lack of concern for the well-being of workers is completely unacceptable”.

“UASA needs to be able to assure its members that they are operating in a safe environment, as is their right as employees,” it said in a statement. 

Rhoda Bazier, deputy chairperson of the Greater Macassar Civic Association, wants RDM’s operational licence to be renewed, saying the buildings at the plant “are not safe”. 

RDM needs to “tighten the screws on the safety and security of the plant,” said Bazier, who describes the explosion as “light and smoke going up in the air”.  

On 29 October, Bazier joined family members of those killed in 2018, labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party in a protest outside the plant against the lengthy investigation into the blast. 

Groenewald also expressed his concern that the investigation had not yet been finalised. “It is unacceptable that even though the 2018 explosion claimed lives, production resumed before answers had been found to all the questions surrounding the previous blast as continuing with production put human lives at risk. The latest explosion serves as clear proof.” 

According to Helmsen, RDM “meets the required international International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) safety standards” and “we comply with all required legislation and the company is regularly audited and tested by third parties including the department of employment and labour and the department of environmental affairs”.

Responding to the Mail & Guardian, Helmsen said the company’s safety standards and records were comparable to those of Europe and the US and that RDM “exceeds the safety standards and records of most countries in the Asian region”. 

He said that given the type of business, incidents of this nature “do occur from time to time”. 

He says RDM has protocols in place to reduce the risk of such incidents and to minimise damage and harm when such incidents do happen. 

All of our buildings are checked by a representative of the department of employment and labour to ensure that we comply with their requirements, and internally we have an explosives manager to monitor and ensure compliance. We are continuously striving to improve processes and to reduce incidents year by year.”

But Groenewald said that if “measures in terms of the law and the statutory licences are strictly adhered to, the chances of an accident occurring, such as the one at Macassar, and the probability of losing lives are significantly reduced”.