Johannesburg - A man has been killed and 40 others have been arrested at an illegal mine on the West Rand.
The police don’t know how the man died, but The Star has been told he was killed in an underground hostage drama that erupted after the miners were robbed of their gold on Sunday.
On Tuesday night the police mopped up their gruelling day-long operation to clear the illegal workings in Florida Park, Roodepoort.
On Wednesday morning, police spokeswoman Colonel Noxolo Kweza confirmed that the illegal miners would face charges of theft of precious metals and trespassing after being arrested when they emerged on the surface. More charges could be added, she said.
Kweza would not confirm whether there had been a hostage situation. “All of those allegations, we will look into them.”
The man’s body was brought to the surface at about 4.30am.
“The postmortem will reveal what he died of,” said Kweza.
Another two men were injured. The police were still determining how this happened.
Officers at the Florida police station were alerted to the situation at about 9am yesterday and rescue teams worked “right through the night” to free the miners, Kweza said.
She said the men – some of whom were allegedly in the country illegally – were expected to appear in court today or tomorrow.
Netcare 911 spokeswoman Santi Steinmann said one of the miners had suffered a serious head injury while others had only minor injuries.
She too could not confirm the cause of the miner’s death.
Police search-and-rescue teams went underground, joined by paramedics. A paramedic from Netcare 911, who did not want to be identified, said they had treated a man for head injuries and another for a stab wound.
The Star team witnessed the illegal miners emerging one by one from a hole in the veld.
They were immediately handcuffed and led to a waiting police vehicle. Bags containing unrefined gold were found underground along with torches.
A policeman, who did not want to be named as he was not an official spokesman, said the unrefined gold would be used as evidence.
Tactical Response Team officers from Honeydew and members of several other police units milled around at the scene as the search-and-rescue operation was carried out.
Curious bystanders watched as the miners came to the surface.
An anxious Xolani Ngwenya from Zimbabwe had come to look for his brother, who had been searching for gold in the area for the past two weeks.
“I’m panicking because his cellphone is not ringing. People are claiming some of the men have died underground.
“I’ll go to the police station tomorrow to see if he is not among those who were arrested,” he said.
EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM
Gold worth an estimated R5.6 billion is stolen by illegal miners every year.
And there are 17 syndicates operating in the country which either sell the gold to local jewellery manufacturers or use it to launder money.
The Chamber of Mines has conducted what it calls an “unscientific” study to estimate these costs but says it is based purely on geological surveys.
Anton van Achterbergh, the head of the legal department of the Chamber of Mines, says it is virtually impossible to ascertain the extent of mining operations or to quantify the amount of gold stolen because there are hundreds of shafts, which are impossible to monitor.
This is because some are on land belonging to the mines, but others are on land that belongs to private owners.
The Institute of Security Studies estimated in a 2007 report that 10 percent of all gold mined in South Africa was stolen each year.
Van Achterbergh says illegal mining is virtually impossible to control, contain, monitor or police as the mines are operated in unused shafts by those familiar with the underground system.
The miners, he says, are well organised, often armed, and not intimidated by the police or security staff.
South Africa is one of the few countries to regulate unwrought gold and prohibit it.
Therefore, he says, once it is out of the country, if the right documentation and paperwork is in place, it is legal, and allowed to be in your possession.
– Anna Cox