Johannesburg - February has been a deadly month in South Africa's mining industry with at least 26 workers, both legal and illegal, killed underground.
At the beginning of the month, mines belonging to mining magnate Patrice Motsepe were cast in the spotlight after nine workers were killed. Their deaths followed a rockfall which triggered a fire at Harmony Gold's Doornkop mine.
The fatalities sparked outrage, with the Congress of SA Trade Unions calling for a probe into the deaths.
“The department of mineral resources... (should) conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into the accident, identify the causes, and assess whether there was any negligence on the part of the mine management,” Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said at the time.
The Economic Freedom Fighters said mining bosses were to blame.
“These deaths, like many in the mining industry, are preventable and, therefore, should be seen not as accidents but murder for profits,” EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said.
In a bid to compensate for the lives lost, Motsepe pledged R75 000 towards the education of each child of the nine miners.
In the same week, two more Harmony Gold mineworkers were killed in separate accidents - one at the Kusasalethu mine in North West and the other at Joel mine in the Free State.
Harmony chief executive Graham Briggs said the deaths were unacceptable.
In the following week, a group of around 200 illegal miners were trapped in an abandoned mine shaft in Benoni, on the East Rand.
As some of them were rescued they revealed the ruthless world of gangs and robbers existing underground. A rival group of illegal miners had reportedly thrown boulders down a shaft, trapping the other group underground, and stealing their gold. Two men were killed.
Agence France-Presse quoted Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko as saying that the men died when a rock fell on them, and that one body remained pinned beneath it. Miners who were rescued from that shaft were arrested and charged with illegal mining. Many others, however, remained underground, fearing arrest.
It was unclear whether any more miners had died, resurfaced, or were still underground, as rescue operations were abandoned.
“When we initially went there, it was a rescue operation,” said Ekurhuleni emergency medical service spokesman Rogers Mamaila.
“Once we established that not all the people had wanted to be rescued, the matter turned into a security one. We handed over the mine security to Gold One International mine's security and police.”
Since then, Gold One had not said anything more regarding the illegal activities on its property.
In the Free State, the naked bodies of two people, suspected to be illegal miners from Lesotho, were found in a shaft at the Eland mine in Welkom.
They had head injuries which were so severe that they were unrecognisable, Warrant Officer Mokgejane Khutsoane said.
“Their heads were cut into pieces.”
Again, the mine owners remained silent.
The highest number of fatalities were in Roodepoort, where the toll of illegal miners stood at 11 on Thursday.
Most of them died from toxic gases underground, said paramedics.
Five bodies were found on Wednesday, close to a hole which illegal mineworkers had dug to get to the ground they were mining.
“It looks like they died a couple of days ago. (The bodies) are already decomposing,” Johannesburg emergency services spokesman Robert Mulaudzi said.
Another five bodies were found dumped there the previous day. At the weekend, rescue officials retrieved the body of an 18-year-old youth from the shaft.
While it was suspected that more illegal miners were still underground, Mulaudzi said rescue workers would not enter the mine. They were not willing to risk the lives of their employees and the miners had chosen to enter the mine at their own risk.
Warrant Officer Nonhlanhla Khumalo said she was not sure who the property belonged to. Mining company DRD Gold said it had no investment in that property.
“DRD disposed of some assets years ago and I am not sure who it belongs to now,” spokesman James Duncan said.