Police and emergency services arrive at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition depot in Somerset West near Cape Town, following a huge explosion which left at least four people dead. PHOTO: Phandulwazi Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)
Cape Town - An explosion at Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) factory in Somerset West has left eight people dead.

City Fire and Rescue spokesperson Theo Layne said: “On arrival it was ascertained that an explosion had occurred and staff of the factory were extinguishing the subsequent fire.”

He said the cause of the explosion had not yet been ascertained. Residents in the area said they heard a loud bang. Scores of family members and eye witnesses stood outside the factory hoping to hear news of their loved ones.

Workers were not allowed to use cellphones in the factory, making it impossible to find out if they were safe. Some residents prayed outside.

Philip Versfeld, a Somerset Neighbourhood Watch member, said: “The bang was so loud that the windows rattled. We are used to the sound of them testing ammunition, but we never heard it that loud before.” Versfeld said they heard blasts once a week.

“The community got into a frenzy and a few members and myself went to investigate,” he said.

RDM is a joint venture between Germany’s Rheinmetall Defence and South Africa’s state-owned arms manufacturer Denel. It supplies selected munitions and explosives products to armed and police forces in South Africa and around the world.

It is not the first time an explosion like this has occurred. Ten years ago a similar explosion resulted in seven deaths.

Denel spokesperson Vuyelwa Qinga expressed shock.

“Should the deaths that the media has reported on be confirmed, Denel SOC Ltd sends our deepest condolences to the families of anyone who has lost life in this incident. Denel SOC is a 49% strategic partner to Rheinmetall, a company of German origin,” she said.

"Rheinmetall Denel Munition has also assured the City of Cape Town that the plume that followed the explosion holds no threat to the general public." 

RDM chief executive Norbert Schulze, apparently at the factory at the time, did not take calls while spokesperson Angela Farmer declined to divulge any further information.

“We are investigating the matter and will inform as more details become available,” she said.

The area’s ward councillor, Rhoda-Ann Bazier, said most of the victims were young.

“This has been a tragedy. The HR official told us that they have to identify the bodies. That can take very long. We don’t have much info at this stage, Bazier said.

“We are offering support to the families who we know from the area.”

Annie de Wee, a resident close to the plant, said she heard a loud bang at about 3pm.

“I immediately thought of my neighbour's child, but quickly realised she was not working. I was stunned. I stood still for a few seconds and realised that Denel was burning,” she said.

“This is so heartbreaking. To die in this way is terrible,” she said.

ANC Provincial Secretary Faiez Jacobs said: “The ANC Western Cape sends its support to the families of the confirmed eight people who have died and those injured. We continue to monitor the situation through our councillor on the ground and we hope there will be no more deaths.”

Cape Argus