Njabulo Sibanda had never been part of zama zamas’ underground operations until he heard that illegal mine workers were trapped underground and vowed to help rescue them.
As it turned out, he returned to the surface in a body bag.
His family said although the unemployed 31-year-old from Zimbabwe lived among zama zamas and was aware of the daily dangers of his friends’ underground endeavours, he was never tempted to join his countrymen in search for gold.
He relied on odd jobs and, for a small fee, at times assisted illegal mine workers in the chemical process of purifying gold particles at Mathole township outside Roodepoort, where they lived.
Thulani Ncube said his altruistic half-brother had summoned up the courage and decided to join a search party for illegal mine workers trapped underground because “he knew most of them”.
“On September 9, he asked one of the frustrated mine workers who was worried about his missing colleagues for some money and took a taxi to Langlaagte, where the rescue mission was under way. When he arrived, he volunteered to join an underground search party of 15 men,” Ncube said.
“He never came back with the others after descending. All we know is that they came in contact with some smoke.”
It is believed that there had been a gas leak or a fire underground on September 7, which spread panic among the colleagues and families of illegal mine workers who were still underground.
Government launched the search as scores of mine workers were believed to be trapped underground. Some were feared dead owing to inhalation of poisonous fumes.
At least 10 illegal mine workers had emerged from the mine by Tuesday, just before Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane visited the scene where he addressed the media, announcing that the search-and-rescue mission was temporarily being halted until underground conditions were conducive to resume.
He pleaded with the public and friends of the trapped miners not to go underground to retrieve the bodies, owing to a potentially lethal “fire, and a high concentration of gas and smoke”.
“We don’t want to worsen the situation [with] people who go underground to rescue others and getting trapped themselves,” Zwane said.
Zwane’s stern warning, however, did little to deter illegal mine workers and family members from taking it upon themselves to retrieve the bodies.
As soon as rescue personnel and the police had packed up and left, the zama zamas’ colleagues launched their own body-retrieval mission and disappeared into the dark mine tunnels.
Sibanda had done the same with similar determination just a few days before and never returned, but this did not deter these men, seemingly drawing hope and courage from a team of sangomas on site with whom they constantly consulted.
The sangomas performed rituals and prayed nonstop for the recovery of the missing men or their bodies.
By 3pm on Tuesday, 22 men had gone down with plastic sheeting in which to wrap the bodies.
About seven hours later, just after 9pm, the first body was pulled out and identified as that of 24-year-old Sibangani Tsikwa.
Minutes later, Sibanda’s body followed.
The illegal mine workers blame Zwane’s department for giving up on finding the trapped men underground.
Chairperson of Zimbabweans Living in SA Ngqabutho Mabhena expressed his disappointment with Zwane and a decision to halt the search mission.
He said Zwane should have encouraged rescue teams to work together with illegal mine workers who knew the layout of the mine.
Tsikwa’s relative Shadrack Mlalazi thanked those who volunteered to search for the bodies.
“I had lost hope of ever seeing him again after government told us they could not locate them and abandoned the search.”
With his brother’s body in a government mortuary, Ncube said the family was now worried about transporting his remains to Nkayi district in Zimbabwe for his burial.
One of the illegal mine workers said they would go back to the same disused mines to work for money to help the families bury their loved ones.
“Yes we’re still shaken, but do we have any other choice? I mean, some of these men died while trying to rescue others ... They deserve to be buried with dignity,” he said.