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Explosion kills at least 29 illegals in South African gold mine

19 May 2017

An explosion on May 11 reportedly killed dozens of illegal miners in Harmony Gold’s Eland mine in Welkom, Free State, local authorities announced on May 12. A week later, 29 bodies had been recovered from the closed mine, local media said, with some of the bodies dragged for 13km through underground tunnels by rescuers to bring the bodies to the surface. 

Stock image
Stock image

Police spokesman Major General Lerato Molale said there were rumours that still more bodies were trapped underground. “We rely heavily on information from the illegal miners that carried the bodies away after the gas explosion last week," he said.

"This is an unused mine and it is very dangerous," Molale said.

The miners had forced their way into the St Helena shaft before the explosion. The rescue team travelled a distance of up to 25km from St Helena to the Eland shaft to get some of the bodies out of the mine, the police spokesman said.

The bodies had already started to decompose, local media said, and some had name tags attached, although Harmony Gold said none were employed by the company. The illegal miners, aged between 30 and 35, were believed to be from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho.

Harmony Gold spokesperson Marian van der Walt said the matter had been handed over to the police and the SA Department of Mineral Resources who would carry out an investigation.

Known locally as Zama Zamas, illegal miners enter mine workings to dig gold on their own account or for criminal gangs.

In 2014, the former Minister for Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, estimated that there were about 14,000 illegal gold miners working in about 6,000 abandoned mines, mainly around Johannesburg, often in very dangerous conditions.

Many migrant workers from impoverished neighbouring countries come to South Africa and can be forced to work in illegal mines in conditions said to be close to slavery. In March 2014, 23 miners from Zimbabwe died in the disused Durban Deep mine in Roodepoort , near Johannesburg.

According to a 2016 report in The Washington Post, local miners say at least one person dies every week attempting to recover small amounts of gold from this mine, which was closed in 2001.

The report claims a third of the gold industry’s 180,000 employees have been fired in the past decade, and many of these are now involved in illegal mining.

There are even so-called ‘ghost’ workers in the larger official mines, such as the deepest gold mine in the world, Mponeng. Here, crime syndicates smuggle illegal miners into the many abandoned tunnels up to four kilometres below the surface where they stay for months in the most primitive conditions imaginable, recovering gold from abandoned seams before being smuggled out again.

Poor industrial relations have been responsible for further deaths. At Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine, 34 striking miners were killed by security forces in 2012 after protests over pay and working conditions.

The larger mining conglomerates are increasingly wary of the risks of mining in South Africa. BHP, which has spun off its South African operations, says it will not invest in platinum because of the risks.

"We think every one of our fatalities is avoidable. Platinum cannot be managed safely. Platinum is in very deep mines with very narrow seams, which are geologically unstable," BHP spokesman Ruban Yogarajah told Reuters.

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