Patrice Motsepe

Boxes of crucial evidence for a criminal court case against Patrice Motsepe’s Assmang manganese factory have gone missing, apparently from Department of Labour offices.

The disappearance came to light last week in a statement from Justice Minister Jeff Radebe on whether the Cato Ridge factory and its employees would be held accountable for several cases of serious workplace illness among workers and the death of another six workers in an explosion in 2008.

Assmang is jointly owned by Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals and the Assore group.

Responding to repeated queries from Gareth Morgan, the DA environmental affairs spokesman, Radebe said a box containing statements, documents and other evidence of possible culpable homicide had “gone missing” and had to be reconstructed by the Labour Department so that the National Prosecuting Authority could decide on whether to prosecute Assmang and certain staff.

It remains unclear whether the documents were stolen or simply mislaid, and whether they relate to manganese poisoning among factory workers or to the February 2008 furnace explosion which killed six workers.

However, Radebe said two criminal cases were being investigated against Assmang by an advocate with the surname of Naicker from the Directorate of Public Prosecutions in KwaZulu-Natal and a Colonel Zondi, who recently supplied new boxes of reconstructed evidence.

“The documents (for both cases) are voluminous and comprise three boxes of documents, statements and exhibits that require consideration. The process of scrutini- sing the said documents, statements and exhibits has not been completed due to the volume of the material and Naicker’s court and other work commitments… The information in the boxes is crucial and must be considered in order to reach a just decision in this case.

“Furthermore, the issues to be decided are complex and require that the prosecutor applies her mind to several legal considerations and researches the issues before she is able to make a decision.”

The investigating officer had also been asked to hire experts to advise on several technical issues and the prosecutor would reach a final decision on whether to charge Assmang before the end of March.

Assmang executive director Jan Steenkamp said that the company had been informed in 2010 that certain documents related to the furnace explosion had been lost and would be replaced, but he could not comment further on Radebe’s statement.

It is understood that the first criminal investigation against Assmang involves the death of factory foreman Freddy Wright and the diagnosis of several other workers with manganism or “manganese madness”, which is caused by exposure to toxic manganese fumes and dust and can lead to severe illness such as brain damage, rage and sleep problems.

The Labour Department held a lengthy public inquiry on the issue from April 2007 to November 2008.

While the inquiry was in progress, furnace No 6 at the factory exploded on February 24, 2008, killing six workers.

According to evidence obtained by the National Union of Metalworkers, Assmang had been warned by technical experts three days earlier of the “high risk of explosion” and had urged the shutting down of the furnace.

The NPA did not respond to requests for clarity on how the documents had disappeared. - The Mercury