Gut feel draws me to the two men. The Amcu T-shirt, which is like a uniform around here, cements the resolve to speak to them.
They agree to talk – but no names. The mine bosses have expressly barred their workers from speaking to the media, signifies the Amcu T-shirt.
He peppers his speech with English words and I soon gather that by “exaggerate” he means “estimate”.
He is “exaggerating” the distance down from the surface into the bowels of the earth. With 12 levels down, it is about 7km.
But it is the other miner, the taller of the two, who tells a riveting tale of the day in question, when the mine collapsed.
“I am a team leader, with about eight men under me. There are several teams, which accounts for why there were 72 people underground on that shift. Sometimes, some men do not report for work, for whatever reason. It is not unusual.
“We start work at 6am. But between then and 9am, we prepare for the travel down. We must take everything we need with us. There is no allowance for returning to the surface to pick up one or two outstanding things. On that day we were late. We could only be ready by 10am.”
In between levels of the shaft, he says, they saw smoke billowing. They could not establish the source.
“But mine procedure and regulations dictate that we evacuate as soon as we detect smoke. You cannot breathe when that smoke engulfs the space.”
He begs my pardon – as if he really had to – to retrace his steps “just a little”.
“First the electricity went off before the smoke. When the smoke issued we ran helter-skelter trying to escape it.”
They were then running between levels, covering vast distances.
“When we stopped, it was where we saw the sky. It has never happened. All of us were in shock … to see the outside, the blue sky when we’re supposed to be underground?”
What he knows for sure is that all 72 workers who had gone down that morning were safely evacuated and brought to surface.
He readies himself to continue, looking furtively around. “They talk about the container (lamp room) as if that is the only thing that went down,” he says.
The lamp room is where the three trapped miners worked from – on the surface.
He uses his calloused workman's hands to reel off the above-ground structures that were swallowed up when the earth opened that morning: “Two compressors, the container (the lamp room), 6m water tanks, electricians’ workshop, the fans’ workshop – big underground fans, the excavator…”
He counts again to make sure he’s tabulated all eight: “And all of these are big structures, nothing small.”
For the first time he laughs, a chuckle really, momentarily.
“The man who drove the excavator ran away. “He came back to resign.”
He uses the hand motion to simulate writing on a piece of paper.
They were rushed to various hospitals and clinics around Barberton, about 45 minutes drive away.
Six days later, he was drafted into the rescue team.
First he gives his resume – the chilling part thereof: “I have worked in the mines for 32 years now. I was in the Venterspost shaft when West Driefontein Mine collapsed.”
This is in Westonaria, west of Johannesburg.
“I was working in Randfontein at the time the Kloof Mine also caved in, also killing people.
“None of these places have I ever seen people being rescued. Once trapped, people are gone. I don’t know what games the mine is playing, saying they will look for these people.”
‘Amcu’, who has been wonderfully silent, chips in: “They are just doing it for the families.”
The team leader continues: “What normally happens is they put a stone there.”
We unravel his isiSwati and Amcu comes in handy with his spattering of English. “Putting a stone” means closing the affected shaft.
“No one knows how far the container has gone, (and) how it landed when it hit the ground below. Where do we start searching?” “They are wasting time,” Amcu asserts.
The team leader says he is starting to fear for his own life when he has to go underground on the rescue mission.
“The rocks down there are razor sharp,” he says, picking up a pebble to make his next point.
“A stone this size can kill you if it hits your head.”
Amcu says, in English: “It is the momentum that kills you.”
Both men describe at length how futile the rescue mission is.
“I don't want to go in there again,” he says.
“As black people we believe in our own rituals. What is the point of pitching the tent there? Are the mines already holding a funeral? These things should be done at home by the families.”
That is a bad omen, Amcu says. “What they are doing now is politicking. They come here to sing instead of letting the people go home to mourn the way their traditions demands of them to do. Those people will never be found.”
He makes a point Amcu quickly seizes as his own: “I think they agree to be at the tent for the sake of the money promised. Otherwise many would have gone home.
“Already there is talk of bitter disputes among the families. Some claim the women were not properly married or the lobolo not paid in full. A battle for the money has ensued.”
The families of the three trapped miners have been promised R200 000 each, while the rescued workers are due a hefty R50 000 each.