The rape of Aurora

2011-09-17 17:27

It’s really difficult not to be outraged when you see what has been done to the Aurora Empowerment Systems’ Grootvlei and Orkney mines.

What were once productive gold mines – employing more than 5 000 workers between them – have been systematically raped during the two-year period in which Aurora – headed by President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse, and his high-profile partners – had control of their assets to the tune of R420 million.

At Grootvlei, entire shafts have been stripped of their steel casings, head gear and every other saleable asset. The mine now resembles some kind of terrifying, post-apocalyptic wasteland.

What was once Shaft 6 is now a haphazard pile of rubble around a gaping, 400m-deep, 10m by 6m hole in the earth – an ugly and dangerous reminder of the voracious appetite of the plunderers.

Seven operational shafts were torn apart and sold for the steel and machinery they contained. Half-a-century-old productive equipment was rendered useless for nothing more than its weight at a scrap yard.

The shafts are now flooded, with unions and experts believing that only three of them can be salvaged – at a massive cost – in the unlikely event that a buyer can still be found.

Outside the shaft, a handful of scavengers are digging trenches, hunting for any scraps of cable or metal too insignificant to have been taken when the mines were looted from 2009 to August last year and from January to April this year.

The mine infrastructure was not the only thing looted from Orkney and Grootvlei.

More than 480kg of gold, valued at about R122 million, was sold to Rand Refinery. But the money never made it back to the Pamodzi liquidators, whose task is to recover R420 million for the company’s creditors, among them the workers who have not been paid their salaries since 2009.

At Orkney, which has been bought by China African Precious Metals for R150 million and a promise of about R550 million to rebuild the infrastructure, the situation is not nearly as dire.

Key equipment has been removed but the shafts are salvageable, with assessors last week estimating the cost of getting the first shafts working at about R35 million.

The improved gold price is also helping. Mine manager Garth Ellis believes that “other parts of the mine are
now viable”.

There are maintenance teams on site attempting to fix what is repairable, while a group of five workers is responsible for trying to extract gold from waste using a manual process that renders about 50g of gold per ton
of rock.

The new Orkney owner, Elias Khumalo, whose empowerment company is part of China African Precious Metals, along with Chinese backer SSC Mandarin Group, also believes that their investment will pay off in the long term.

But he acknowledges that while the deal is aimed at making money, it is in part a humanitarian act aimed at erasing the “embarrassment’’ caused to the president, to whom he is close, by the Aurora debacle.

Khumalo says: “This is a business deal which I believe can turn a profit, but we had to intervene. People’s lives are at stake, as well as our government’s reputation. Something had to be done.’’

What went wrong at the Aurora mines and who will be held responsible for their rape is the subject of an in-camera inquiry at the office of the Master of the North Gauteng High Court.

It was called by the Master, Lester Basson, after one of the liquidators, Enver Motala, was removed for hiding his criminal record and giving Aurora a secret loan of R3 million while arguing for them to be given an extension.

Aurora had promised R600 million for the Pamodzi assets, but repeatedly failed to come up with the money and was kicked out earlier this year.

The inquiry will probe whether this was simply a bad business deal or a planned criminal operation aimed at illegally harvesting the mines’ assets.

Khulubuse Zuma and fellow directors Zondwa Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela; Michael Hulley, President Zuma’s lawyer during his corruption and rape trials; and Thulani Ngubane have all denied responsibility for the theft and sale of the assets.

They argue that the bid failed after a Malaysian backer reneged on the promised funding.

Khulubuse Zuma and Ngubane were scheduled to give evidence last week but failed to do so, while Motala has himself been subpoenaed to appear later this month to explain his actions in securing an extension for a company that he was clandestinely lending money to.

Workers, unions and managers have all already given evidence and the inquiry should be wrapped up by December.

But unionists, among them Solidarity deputy general secretary Gideon du Plessis, believe a more cynical and sinister motive was at play.

“Everything points towards there not having been any interest in mining here,’’ says Du Plessis.

“We believe that people should face criminal charges for what was done.’’

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