Sizwe Sama Yende and photographer Rosetta Msimango join former Lily Mine employees who are risking their lives to retrieve the bodies of their colleagues, who were working in a container office during a rockfall incident and buried underground in 2016
Under a tree at the foot of a mountain, where a small group has gathered in prayer, a man bellows scripture verses and maligns politicians. The mood is sorrowful.
“It’s a disgrace,” he says, with a scowl on his wizened face. “The South African government abandons its children as if they are stray dogs.”
Amid responses of “amen”, and the moaning and sighing of despair, he continues: “Who is this McChesney that they fear so much? They tremble when they see him. Parliament is reopening soon and they will talk about creating jobs. Where are those jobs going to come from if the mines are still closed?”
It is January 3 2020 – day 252 of camping and prayer. The tree has been serving as a shrine for fed-up families and former workers of Lily and Barbrook gold mines in Louisville outside Barberton, Mpumalanga.
They have been camping here in tents since the closure of the sister mines in 2016, when the entrance to Lily Mine collapsed. They hope to goad government to help them retrieve the bodies of three former Lily Mine workers who were trapped underground during the incident. They also want to force warring corporate companies to end their prolonged legal battle and reopen the mines.
Each day, they hold a prayer service in the morning and at lunchtime.
But, over the past two weeks, they have added another activity to their daily routine. Men who were employed by Vantage Goldfields SA (VGSA) to extract gold, dress in their mining gear of white overalls, gumboots and helmets and, after the morning prayer session at about 7am, they walk through the bush to access the mine shaft so that they can try to find their colleagues’ bodies.
Pretty Nkambule (22), Solomon Nyirenda (39) and Yvonne Mnisi (30) were the casualties when the entrance to the Lily Mine shaft collapsed on February 5 2016. Their container office sank about 60m underground. Their bodies have still not been retrieved – rescue efforts were abandoned because the ground was unstable, putting the rescuers’ lives in danger.
Seventy-six of the trio’s colleagues were saved because, when the ground collapsed, they were already inside the mine. They were evacuated through another exit. The mine was closed and put under business rescue, and 900 workers lost their jobs.
The main reason behind the mines not being reopened is a prolonged legal battle between VGSA and prospective investor Siyakhula Sisonke Corporation (SSC), led by the two companies’ chief executives, Mike McChesney and Fred Arendse, respectively.
The business rescue process cannot be implemented because of the litigation and, without an investor, Lily Mine cannot be reopened and the operation to retrieve the container office and the three bodies cannot begin.
The walk to the mine shaft through indigenous bush is a tedious affair.
“The mine security guards don’t want to let us on to the mine’s property and they have closed the route we were using, which was much shorter,” says former mine worker Harry Mazibuko as we trudge up and down the mountain, avoiding tree branches and thorns.
“But they don’t mind letting in illegal mine workers through the main entrance,” he says.
The illegal mine workers – or zama zamas – feel completely at home here. They have pitched their tents in the bush and go underground daily to extract gold. It is now an open secret that zama zamas are plundering the gold while VGSA and SSC slug it out in court.
From a vantage point, as we get closer to the sunken shaft entrance, we see three illegal mine workers pass security guards – they are not stopped or questioned.
They greet us as they pass by. “Don’t photograph us, please,” they say.
They soon become specks in the distance as they walk down the sunken ground and then uphill to the shaft entrance. It is as if it is their home – we see them changing into their work gear and hanging their clothes at the shaft’s entrance.
“When we enter here to look for our colleagues, the VGSA security guards stop us. They have also obtained a court interdict to stop us from coming here to look for our colleagues. But illegal mine workers walk in and out as they please,” Mazibuko says.
He and his team have decided not to go underground today because the illegal mine workers blasted some rock the previous day and they are waiting for the dust to settle.
Mazibuko hopes that they might be close to the container office. They have found a fence that barricaded the transformer about 5m from the office before the disaster.
“It’s going well. We believe that we’re close. The illegal mine workers have shown us another route we can use to reach the container. It was barricaded and we believe VGSA was not telling the truth when it said a retrieval attempt was risky. The illegal mine workers have been blasting for two years without any problems.”
THE COURT CASES
VGSA agreed to sell 74% of its shares to Arendse’s Flaming Silver 373, a subsidiary of SSC, early last year – a transaction that was approved by the mineral resources department.
Arendse said SSC was ready to reopen the mines by March last year, but VGSA refused to hand over share certificates, claiming that SSC did not have the funds to reopen the mine.
The legal tussle began when SSC went to court demanding that VGSA hand over the share certificates. VGSA responded by cancelling its sale agreement. SSC won that case, but VGSA came back on appeal and won after a former Flaming Silver director, Ferdi Dippenaar, made a presentation to the court that the company’s board was not properly constituted when an addendum to the sale agreement was signed. SSC is appealing this.
Flaming Silver has since partnered with Taung Gold and formed an entity called Arqomanzi, which has tabled a solid offer of R472 million. Arqomanzi turned the tables on VGSA when it went to Standard Bank and signed an agreement to take over VGSA’s loan account of R389 million with the bank. Arqomanzi is now VGSA’s biggest creditor.
VGSA announced that it had sold a 100% stake to Real Win Investment (RWI), but RWI has not presented an offer to the business rescue practitioners. Only Arqomanzi has done so, and the business rescue practitioners are now drafting a new business plan for the creditors to vote for their preferred bidder to buy the mine. Arqomanzi is in the driving seat now.
Arendse says: “In my opinion, the primary reason McChesney and his associates are delaying the opening of the mines relates to the trapped bodies and the implications when we recover the loved ones of the three families. The mining resources department inquiry has already determined [that there was] gross negligence, and we were made aware of the findings and recommendations for prosecution.”
The container office that plunged into darkness stood on a 15m-thick crown pillar between the floor of the mine’s main open pit and the roof of level four. The mine has 12 levels underground. The disaster happened when 27m of the main crown pillar at the main entrance collapsed.
The department’s inquiry into the disaster found that there had been 10 pillar collapses or rock falls before the February 2016 accident, which the mine’s management did not report to the department’s principal inspector of mines.
The inquiry found that the mine’s management failed to listen to rock engineer Dr Rudi Kersten’s input about the location of the main access to the underground workings at the mine. Kersten had recommended that the mine’s permanent access be developed about 100m south of the western extremity of the open pit.
The report said that no evidence was presented to confirm the crown pillar was supported as a roof of level four of the mine to prevent it from collapsing.
MCCHESNEY, ARENDSE FIGHT DIVIDES COMMUNITY
About three weeks ago, the tents that the members of the community had constructed at the mine were set alight. On December 29, 62-year-old Elmon Mnisi’s house was torched. He is Yvonne’s father.
Most of the former employees, community members and the Lomshiyo Tribal Authority support Arendse’s bid for the mines, but a few individuals do not.
“The people who burnt my house are the same as those who burnt our tents,” Mnisi says.
He says someone might have thrown a match through a bedroom’s open window because the electricity connection was intact, so it wasn’t an electrical fault that started the fire. The blaze damaged two bedrooms.
Mnisi has been outspoken, standing at the front of the bereaved families’ struggle to retrieve the bodies.
“We want closure, but McChesney and his company don’t want us to find the bodies. They’re preventing the new company from taking over because the bodies will be found and there will be consequences,” he says.
Mnisi is concerned that government, and the mineral resources department in particular, seems to have forgotten about the bereaved families.
“We’ve decided that we’re not going to be like chicks waiting for their mother to feed them. Enough is enough.”
NO HOPE LOST
Solomon’s mother, Duduzile Nyirenda (60), says she lost her appetite when her son was buried in the mine’s rubble. “I just eat because the body needs nutrients, but I’m not enjoying food. At night, I lose sleep and all the reasons we’re camping here come to mind,” she says.
Her son was the family’s sole breadwinner, and she says she misses sitting with him at home talking about life and his plans for the future.
“The Bible says there’s a beginning and an end. I still have hope,” Nyirenda said.
Like the man preaching under the tree, Pretty’s brother, Sifiso Mavuso (24), has no kind words for the government.
“If it was a child of a white or a prominent person, government would have done all it could to retrieve the bodies. My sister left a child who was five months old who is now growing up without her,” he says.
“I think McChesney is being protected by politicians so that he cannot be charged for negligence.”
At the end of the prayer session, it’s lunchtime at the camp. White buckets emblazoned with SSC’s logo are packed into one of the tents. They contain groceries donated by the company to feed the families as they wait for closure.