Illegal miners held after being rescued

By Time of article published May 24, 2012

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Mogomotsi Magome

A RESCUE operation to lift about 27 trapped illegal miners to the surface of a Harmony gold mine in Welkom, Free State, continued into the night yesterday.

At least 11 of the miners were rescued and immediately arrested for trespassing following a rescue operation that started on Tuesday after authorities were alerted that they were trapped underground.

It took the rescue teams nearly two hours to bring each miner to the surface. They all received medical attention before being taken into a police van. It was still unclear what led to the illegal miners being trapped underground, but speculation was rife among rescue workers and police on the scene that some rocks had fallen while they were digging for gold.

Emergency service personnel, mine rescue teams and the police were all present at the cordoned-off mine helping with the rescue of the illegal miners. The entire mine was barricaded and the media were prevented from entering or taking pictures of the miners after the rescue.

The mine has not been operational for about 10 years but has proved to be a lucrative hunting ground for the illegal miners

Illegal mining in the Welkom area is extremely rife and the miners, popularly known as Zama Zamas, are known to be mainly illegal immigrants from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

It is believed to be a lucrative business for various syndicates which profit from selling the gold on the black market, but an extremely dangerous one for those who have to go underground.

Police yesterday declined to confirm the nationality of the 11 miners who had been rescued, saying the information would only be made available once an investigation had been completed.

Colonel Sam Magele said it was difficult to police illegal miners as they did the activity on privately owned property.

“When it happens, it usually involves lots of them. Right now, it’s a joint venture to bring them to the surface, give them medical attention and arrest them.

“We will be conducting an investigation to find out what really happened. We are charging them with trespassing, because they were found on a property where they are not allowed to be.

“We hope that by the end of our investigation we’ll know exactly what happened and investigate all other claims related to illegal mining at this shaft,” said Magele.

But the activity is not only dangerous to the miners themselves, but also to children who attend a school managed by Kingdom Ministries.

The miners are known, usually, to be heavily armed in anticipation of a violent approach from police and security guards. Officers were indeed heavily armed as they secured the premises yesterday.

The school is separated from the mine by a mere fence. It is regularly cut by the illegal miners to gain entrance into the site.

According to the administrator of the school, Paul O’Neil, they have even experienced daylight gunfights between the illegal miners and security guards.

“In the last 12 months they (the miners) have been very active in this mine. They even work during the day and we can hear them from the school.

“It is not only those who go underground, but even those who strip the shaft of whatever steel they can find.

“Our calls to authorities to do something about this have fallen on deaf ears. There is only activity when something like this happens. We have even asked to buy the property, but to avail,” said O’Neil.

He added that attempts to have the road leading to the shaft closed were unsuccessful as it was a municipal road.

He said they were hoping the recent incident involving the miners would shed some light on the issue and that something would be done.

“How are the parents supposed to feel knowing that their children are attending school at a place where such things are taking place?” he asked.

Police spokesman Captain Stephen Thakeng said those rescued had indicated that some miners underground were reluctant to come to the surface as they faced immediate arrest.

“Of course they will be arrested like the others, because they are trespassing. They are afraid to come up, but they should just do so because their lives are at risk,” said Thakeng.

Harmony spokeswoman Marian van der Walt declined to comment on the situation, saying all communication had been delegated to the SAPS.

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