Families of Lily Mine victims 'ignored' in rush to reopen
Activist asks how the government can back reopening the mine when a report on the tragedy hasn't emerged
South African mining rights activist and lawyer Richard Spoor has questioned the government’s decision to support the reopening of Lily Mine in Mpumalanga while the report on what caused its collapse in 2016 is still outstanding.
In February 2016, employees Pretty Nkambule, 34, Yvonne Mnisi, 23, and Solomon Nyerende were buried alive after a container serving as a mobile office plunged 80m into a sinkhole when the road outside the entrance to the mine outside Barberton collapsed.
Another 76 trapped mineworkers were rescued because they were already in the shaft when the ground collapsed.
Immediately after that, former Mineral Resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane called for an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the collapse. Early this year, at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town, Zwane said the report was completed and would be handed over to his department and be made public for the families.But five months later, the families are still in the dark about what really happened on that fateful day.
The Siyakhula Sonke Empowerment Corporation (SSC) emerged this year as a new company to run the mine. It received R190-million from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) to reopen the mine.
The SSC would have a 74% stake in Vantage Gold, the owners of Lily Mine. The company’s CEO, Fred Arendse, a mining entrepreneur, could not be reached for comment on Friday because he was on an overseas trip.
Spoor questions how the IDC would lend a company the money without knowing the results of the inquiry into the collapse of the mine.
On his Facebook page on Thursday, Spoor questioned how the SSC received the loan without the report being released:
“Isn’t it amazing how the IDC is willing to lend the Siyakhula Sonke Empowerment Corporation (SSC) R190-million to acquire a 74% stake in Vantage Gold, the owner of Lily Mine, without having seen the report of the inquiry into the collapse of the roof of the mine in February 2016?
“It’s hard to imagine how the cause of the massive structural failure is not relevant to the sale. As a buyer, I would also be concerned to know if in its report the (Department of Mineral Resources) has recommended the criminal prosecution of the mine owners or intention to impose an administrative fine on the company.”
Speaking to Times Select, Spoor said the voices of the families of the three victims cannot be ignored. “There’s been a formal inquiry which was called by government into the collapse of that mine, and months later the results of what had happened there are yet to be released.“We represented the worker union, Association of Mine and Construction Workers Union (Amcu), on that inquiry but we have not received the report and it has not been made public,” said Spoor.
“Is the money to be given to this company more important than the workers? Is this deal viable for the state?”
Meanwhile, for the families of the deceased, the loss of their loved ones remains a gaping hole.
Nkambule’s husband, Christopher Mazibuko, said his family is hurting: “Deep down I am poorer without her. My kids ask about her and she left a one-year-old baby girl who has no clue what is happening.”Almond Mnisi, Yvonne’s father, said all they hear is that the mine will be in operation under new management. “Let me tell you, we are in the dark of what will happen to the deceased. I hear that next month the mine is opening but nothing is said about the container. Those people trapped in that container matter to us, we need to have their remains to find closure,” he said.
Nkambule was not supposed to be working the morning shift on that fateful day, but went in to cover for a colleague.
Christopher saw her about an hour before the collapse.
“I accompanied her to work on that early morning and that was the last time I spoke to her. Today I want to see her bones, I want to bury her so we can have closure as a family,” he said.The families of the deceased reportedly received R200,000 each from Department of Mineral Resources.
Nkambule’s mother-in-law, Grace Nkosi, who spent three months outside the gates of Lily Mine after the tragedy, said she was hurt by how the government was handling their case. “This is an everyday pain for us as a family. Today, government cares about reopening the mine instead of prioritising us. Money is nothing; we need those bodies out,” she said.
It has been widely reported that the business rescue practitioner at Lily Mine, Rob Devereaux, announced that the company had secured R190-million from the IDC and R110-million from private investors.
He is quoted as saying that once they get the money they will start developing a new shaft and open the mine in July. He also said the search for the remains of the trapped miners will resume in 2019 “for safety reasons”.
A statement issued by the portfolio committee on mineral resources last month welcomed a report by the Department of Mineral Resources that it will recover the bodies of the three mineworkers, and that this will resume in November.The chairperson of the committee in parliament, Sahlulele Luzipo, said this will bring closure to the families. “Although sceptical, the committee believes the resumption of operation at the mine will not only bring closure to the families of the three missing workers, but will also bring about 600 workers back to work,” he said.
The department's national spokesperson, Ayanda Shezi, did not respond by the time of publication.
• To date this year, at least 54 people have died in mining accidents. Most recently, five workers died when a fire broke out at the Palabora Copper Mine in Limpopo on Sunday.