RESCUE BID: Members of the South African Mine Rescue Services make their way to the collapsed site at Vantage Goldfields’ Lily Mine, near Barberton, where three mineworkers were trapped underground in a makeshift office set up in a container. Picture: Phill Magakoe/Independent Media
RESCUE BID: Members of the South African Mine Rescue Services make their way to the collapsed site at Vantage Goldfields’ Lily Mine, near Barberton, where three mineworkers were trapped underground in a makeshift office set up in a container. Picture: Phill Magakoe/Independent Media
SORROW: Concern is written on the face of a friend of the three trapped mineworkers as he awaits news of their fate at Lily Mine. Picture: Phill Magakoe/Independent Media
SORROW: Concern is written on the face of a friend of the three trapped mineworkers as he awaits news of their fate at Lily Mine. Picture: Phill Magakoe/Independent Media
ANGUISH: Family members and friends of the three trapped mineworkers pray for their safe return near the entrance of Lily Mine. Picture: Phill Magakoe/Independent Media
ANGUISH: Family members and friends of the three trapped mineworkers pray for their safe return near the entrance of Lily Mine. Picture: Phill Magakoe/Independent Media
Johannesburg - Today marks 316 days since February 5, the day the ground collapsed at Lily Mine, west of Barberton in Mpumalanga, burying three workers.

It has become known that the container they used as a lamp room, in which they were working when the cave-in happened, should not have been placed so close to the mineshaft.

To this day, Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyirenda bodies remain unrecovered.

A few days after the catastrophe, Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane promised the families of the three R200 000 each in reparations and a further R50 000 to the 75 miners who escaped the disaster by the skin of their teeth on that fateful day.

This was a windfall to the affected miners, whose R12 500 salary was a result of a protracted stand-off between the mine owners and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union which, as at Lily, has become the majority union in the industry.

The families and the workers are yet to see a cent of that money.

In October we reported it seemed no one in the Department of Mineral Resources remembered details of the promise made by Zwane to the workers after the mine collapse.

The workers wait.

According to the business rescue firm Sturns, the commitment runs up to R4.35 million.

Seeking to exonerate themselves, Sturns said at the time: “No one director, management nor a collective of directors has the mandate or the limit of authority to make such a decision nor was it taken by them.”

Ministerial spokesman Martin Madlala responded at the time that his principal had “made the announcement jointly with the company”.

“There was never any expectation that the money would come from the ministry,” Madlala said.

But Sturns then said: “The company therefore denies these commitments, but together with the practitioner will honour the ex gratia payments as stated.”

The workers wait; the ex gratia payments were never made.

In the business rescue plan that was lodged on April 7, published on May 16 and ultimately approved on May 25, the wording sounds like the interests of the mineworkers are of paramount concern to the drafters of the plan.

“Employees need to be paid,” the promise goes, “creditors need to be paid, and the mine needs to reopen and operate at a profit.”

But the reality that hits the workers now is that their interests are far down the pecking order.

Trade union Solidarity, through its general secretary Gideon du Plessis, registered this concern: “As per the practitioner’s fee structure, the only party that is getting rich out of this process is the BRP (business rescue practitioner) and his team and a delay in the process means more money to them.”

The reopening of the mine and its working at a profit, plus the positive spin-offs that will flow from it, depends on the mine owners raising the requisite R200 million from funders.

The first attempt at securing funding from an Australian concern, Afrocan, fell through at the last minute.

In a July 5 communique from the business rescue practitioner, Rob Devereaux, he confirmed that this transaction “was effective June 1, 2016”.

The “delays in transferring of funds” were dismissed as a minor bump in the road. After this setback, the negotiations seemed to proceed in a clandestine manner.

Not all stakeholders are au fait with the process. “At the time when the plan was approved, the impression was created that a firm deal with a funder was imminent,” Solidarity said.

But in all this scrounging for money, everyone but the business rescue is making ends meet.

Lately, Devereaux has not been taking calls from this reporter.

The business rescue plan says: “Certain employees may be seconded to nearby Barbrook Mine and will be paid by Barbrook Mine. Under these circumstances, there will be no change to their terms and conditions of employment.”

This is just pie in the sky. Workers like father-of-five King Swenk Fakude and Sibusiso Khoza loiter in the streets, with absolutely nothing to do. They haven't been absorbed into Barbrook Mine as promised.

The majority of these workers are affiliated to Amcu, whose leader Joseph Mathunjwa has also made it a habit not to take calls from this reporter on the matter.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has a negligible presence at Lily.

It has consistently tried to organise pickets and marches to the mine and ultimately a major march to Zwane’s office.

Throughout the year, all NUM deputy president Joseph Montisetsi has talked about are the demand that the minister resign as “we blame him for the situation at Lily”, and the reopening of the mine.

For the mine to reopen, someone needs to raise the R200m and, in its view, the NUM thinks the government should step in and confiscate the assets of Vantage Goldfields, the owners of Lily Mine, to defray the costs of reopening the mine.

Solidarity’s members are fortunately catered for by their hands-on union but the membership complains that “none of the following (was) paid to retrenched employees: salaries for April and May 2016 and part of June; allowances; overtime pay; notice pay and severance packages”.

The BRP vows that “employees that would be retrenched under business rescue will receive full retrenchment packages”. No one, bar the business rescue practitioner, believes this.

The reality on the ground is what Solidarity points to. “Contrary to the clause referring to job security, employees are getting termination letters on an ongoing basis.”

The closest the BRP has come to showing a semblance of understanding the dynamics of the situation is captured in these words: “The estimated impact on the closure of the mine is 9 000 persons. This is based on employees having to support at least 10 dependants in the community.”

They are referring to real flesh-and-blood dependants such as Duduzile Nyirenda, the mother of Solomon. Her plight gets bleaker with each day that dawns and her son is not recovered - dead or alive.

The Sunday Independent