MAC/20: Mines and Communities

South Africa: Harmony ripped apart as scores of miners die

Published by MAC on 2009-06-08

Around one hundred and fifty "illegal" miners have died in disasters at South African gold mines, this year so far.

Last week, a record number of 61 fatalities (and probably rising) was recorded at a Harmony Gold mine in Free State province.

Blame for the tragedy has been squarely placed by Harmony on "well organised mining syndicates".

However, the country's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has accused company employees themselves of corruptly encouraging the practice. The Union is calling for all Harmony's operations in the afflicted area to be closed down.

Death Toll At South African Gold Mine Rises To 61


3rd June 2009

JOHANNESBURG - The death toll from a fire at an abandoned South African gold mine rose to at least 61 on Tuesday, making it the country's worst such disaster in recent memory at an illicit mine.

The fire has raged for days at the mine, owned by Harmony Gold Mining Co., in the central Free State province whose many disused mines hold enough deposits to attract illegal mining syndicates.

A further 25 bodies were recovered Tuesday.

"This is the worst ever such tragedy involving illegal miners in this country, and we fear even more bodies may be found," Minister of Mining Susan Shabangu told Reuters in a telephone interview after visiting the scene of the disaster.

"It is difficult to quantify how much gold they steal, but this is not a haphazard operation. This is organized crime, and our target together with police is to get those behind it."

Gold prices near record highs have made the risk taken by well-organized illegal mining syndicates even more worthwhile, but many have paid with their lives -- about 81 illegal miners have been killed in fires and other accidents so far this year.

Miners break through concrete seals on closed shafts. Sometimes they sneak past security and stay underground for months before leaving by shafts several kilometers away.

The bodies at Eland shaft, near the town of Welkom, were dragged by fellow miners from depths of up to 1.4 km (0.9 miles).

South Africa, the world's third biggest gold producer, has the world's deepest gold shafts, with some as deep as 4 km.

"Companies may take a business decision to stop mining at a shaft for a while, but may plan to do so later. So any illicit mining is a big threat to them and the gold mining industry," Shabangu said.

Kingpins running illegal mining syndicates recruit unemployed South Africans and illegal immigrants, mostly from neighboring Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Some illicit miners are former miners employed by mining firms who have been laid off.

Shabangu said sting operations were being carried out.

Harmony, the world's No. 5 gold producer, is particularly exposed to plundering by illegal miners compared with its peers, because it was built on a strategy of buying old, unwanted gold mines. Bigger rival AngloGold Ashanti, said it was not troubled by illegal miners because it had no disused mines.

South Africa's Chamber of Mines, which groups gold producers in the world's third biggest source of gold, said illegal mining was a problem that individual companies were dealing with, but it too had no figures on the value of gold stolen.

"The gold price is an incentive to them, most of who are very poor," the Chamber's legal expert Anton van Achterbergh said.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved

NUM accuses Harmony of corruption

3rd June 2009

THE National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is accusing Harmony's Free State management of corruption after the deaths of 61 illegal miners in the company's Elands shaft. NUM is demanding the closure of Harmony's affected operations and wants government to take disciplinary action against the company.

"The illegal miners must have been in collusion with managers to get into the shafts. NUM demands an investigation and for the company to receive a large fine," NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka told Miningmx.

Harmony spokesperson Marian van der Walt vigorously denies this accusation. "Criminal miners are involved in bribery of employees, but we address this through an ethical programme which gives incentives to report this behaviour," she said.

Van der Walt said there is no planned corruption within Harmony's management. NUM questioned why - despite the fingerprint security system Harmony has in place - illegal miners were still able to enter the shafts.

"The company knew about the problem of illegal mining since 1999. If they were aware of it, why did they not put proper security in place?" Seshoka said.

NUM is demanding that Harmony take full responsibility for the deaths of the illegal miners.

"While the NUM does not in any way support and condone illegal mineworkers, the union believes that these poor workers may have been lured by experienced managers to go and ply their trade at the mine,"

NUM said in a statement on Wednesday. However, Van der Walt said Harmony should not be the only entity to take responsibility for the tragedy. "While it is tragic that so many people lost their lives, it is not a fair comment for NUM to make. NUM always blames management for everything," she said.

On Monday, Harmony reported the recovery of the bodies of 36 illegal miners. They died as a result of an underground fire in an abandoned section of its Eland shaft. On Tuesday, Harmony reported another 25 bodies had been recovered.

Harmony said in a statement that it did not see any signs of a fire and only when fellow illegal miners brought the bodies to the surface were they informed of it. "At the heart of the problem lies lax security and unwillingness on the part of the company to invest in proper security systems," NUM said.

Harmony defence

Van der Walt told Miningmx that the reaction from NUM was disappointing after a constructive meeting had been held on Tuesday with various stakeholders, including the unions. She said all parties had agreed to work together to avoid these incidents in future. "These miners forcefully enter our shafts. They break open areas we've closed off," Van der Walt said.

Harmony has a fingerprint scanning safety procedure which does not allow non-employees into the shafts. The company also conducts security searches underground every day. "NUM must have forgotten that our first responsibility is towards our employees and their members. The illegal miners do not follow proper safety procedures and thereby endanger the lives of our employees," she said.

Trade union Solidarity has asked the mines minister to appoint a task team to investigate the worsening situation of illegal mining in South Africa. This follows after nearly 90 illegal miners already died in South African mines in 2009. An underground fire also caused the deaths of 20 illegal miners at Pan African's Consort mine in March.

Illegal mining has been an issue in the South African mining industry for some time, and the high gold price has led to an increase in the activity.

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