On Thursday, former mine workers and the families of those who died in the Lily Mine collapse in 2016 marked one year of camping outside the mine with a solemn prayer session.
Unlike most anniversaries, and in the week of Freedom Day, they had nothing to celebrate.
They prayed for a government that cares about their plight and for justice for the mine management, which was found to have been responsible for killing their loved ones, and gave thanks to South Africans who donated food and supplies to sustain them.
On February 5 2016, the main entrance to the Lily Mine in Mpumalanga collapsed.
An above-ground container used as a lamp room was buried 70m underground, and with it Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyarende. Nkambule’s daughter was an infant at the time of the mine collapse.
She is nearly five years old today and cannot remember her mother, but she has many questions.
Six years earlier, in Chile, a mine collapsed and trapped 33 mine workers. The country’s government came to a standstill as rescue operations began.
In South Africa, life went on as normal.
Very few took notice and the rescue effort was called off shortly after it started, with a suspicious report stating that the container could not be retrieved. With the mining technology available in the world, I do not believe this for one second.
The decision to call off the rescue and deem the retrieval impossible worked for some. The mine management at Vantage faced the prospect of criminal prosecution for criminal negligence.
An investigation by the department of mineral resources found the mine management to be responsible for the collapse after ignoring important safety measures.
The National Prosecuting Authority and the SA Police Service determined that, without the bodies of the trapped mine workers, they could not pursue criminal action.
As a matter of fact, it took nearly two years for the former mine workers and their families to even be allowed to open a case, despite the 2017 department report necessitating such action. Instead of a criminal justice system working for them, it persecuted them.
A court order was obtained that forced the former mine workers and their families to remain 1 000m away from the mine. Sixty heavily armed police officers arrived at the mine to enforce the court order.
The former mine workers have been intimidated and threatened, and petrol bombs have been used to destroy their tents in the middle of the night.
Most recently, a joint police and SA National Defence Force operation tried to evict them from the area, despite the regulations of the lockdown prohibiting evictions and efforts on their part to achieve social distancing.
Daily, illegal mining continues at the mine unabated. It is believed that this is an organised criminal activity, with the proceeds of the illegal mining funding very particular interests.
Our law enforcement agencies took no interest in this, or the petrol bombs – all they want is to keep the former mine workers and their families away from the mine.
Shortly after the rescue was called off, Vantage went into business rescue, and a practitioner was appointed by the courts.
A number of bids have came forward for the mine, given that it is a highly profitable gold enterprise.
Some of these bids included offers by the bidders to retrieve the container for the former mine workers and their families, a task that the department concluded could not be done.
They offered to pay the former mine workers the outstanding wages they were owed and to re-employ them once the mine reopened. These bids stalled when Vantage refused to agree to these arrangements.
More than four years later, there is not a level of government that the former mine workers and their families have not pleaded with for assistance. Politicians came and went, making promises that evaporated as quickly as their presence.
In December, the former mine workers and their families reached out to The People’s Dialogue for help.
After meeting with them at the mine, we have arranged the best legal representation to sue our government so that it is forced to act.
We have contracted one of our country’s foremost forensic experts to investigate the alleged appearance of corrupt relationships between government and Vantage.
Although the road ahead will be long, we will achieve justice for these brave South Africans.
One cannot escape the feeling, as we reflect on the day South Africa became truly free, that had these families been anything other than poor, rural and black, they may not have been treated this way by our government.
When I was last at the mine, I could not help but ask myself, while we were driving away, what these South Africans could have possibly done to endure such cruelty and indifference at the hands of their government.
I call on every citizen to embrace the former mine workers and their families as our compatriots who have endured unnecessary suffering at the hands of their government.
As a country, we have to stand together and support these brave citizens, and show that we will not tolerate their continued ill-treatment.
Mashaba is the founder of The People’s Dialogue
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