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Call for public protector to investigate Denel blast four years later

The scene of the explosion at Denel near Somerset West. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

The scene of the explosion at Denel near Somerset West. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 27, 2020


Cape Town - It has been four years since a massive blast killed eight people at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition plant (RDM) in Somerset West and families of the victims are nowhere closer to finding closure. They have now called on the public protector to launch an investigation.

Convener for the families Rhoda Bassier said: “We had a public meeting last year and this meeting was held right after RDM released their findings and said it was human error that caused the explosion. But the way they have handled this is really pathetic and the families have not received any closure.”

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The families have accused the company and Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan of maladministration, negligence and improper conduct.

The internal investigation found that due process was not followed in ensuring the safety of materials.

The findings of the probe into the accident on September 3, 2018 were released in October last year.

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The N16 building, where the incident occurred, was used for blending large volumes of propellant from smaller sub-lots.

At the time of the incident sub-lots of single-base propellant were being blended into one homogenous final lot. Propellant had been safely blended at the facility since it started operations in the 1980s.

According to the company, all team members were fully trained, and the team leader and supervisor had extensive experience with the material and the operations being executed at the time of the incident.

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The investigation established that during the mandatory routine testing of sub-lots in the course of the manufacturing process, one sub-lot did not meet the required quality standards.

It was also revealed that due process was not followed and, instead, an attempt to rework the material was made by adding extra graphite to the propellant.

A letter has been sent to the public protector urging her office to contact an investigator. It stated: “It is necessary for the public protector to probe the cause of the explosion at RDM and the minister’s failure to appoint independent investigators and inform the families of the deceased and the community of Parliament what occurred.”

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Public protector spokesperson Oupa Segalwe said: “The public protector has received the complaint. It is being assessed for merit and jurisdiction. Only after the assessment will the public protector decide whether or not to investigate.”

Families of the deceased have welcomed the call for the public protector to intervene.

Johannes Hartzenberg, the uncle of Jason Hartzenberg, 21, who died in the explosion, said: “The investigation RDM did does not make any sense to me and we welcome this because we as a family need closure. We have so many questions and we just need answers.”

Malcolm Davids, the father of Triston Davids, 22, who died, said: “I am not happy with the investigation RDM has done. They have not taken any responsibility for this; they are instead blaming the victims.”

RDM spokesperson Ruby Maree said: “We, as a company, will always remember this tragic event of 3 September, 2018. As colleagues we have mourned their loss, but know it is nothing in comparison to the losses their families have suffered. Our highest priority was and continues to be to provide assistance and support to the families of those who passed away.”

Gordhan’s spokesperson Sam Mkokeli said: “The ministry has not received communication in that regard. We will co-operate with any investigation that may be warranted.”

Cape Argus

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Public Protector