At Least 61 Illegal Miners Die in South African Mine Fire

JOHANNESBURG — At least 61 unauthorized miners have been killed in an unused gold mineshaft in South Africa, one of the largest disasters in recent years involving illegal mining and indicative of the scale of the problem in the country. A further 25 bodies were discovered early Tuesday after Harmony Gold Mining Co. was contacted anonymously regarding their location in its Eland shaft near Welkom in Free State province, said Marian van der Walt, executive for corporate relations. Harmony a day earlier had said the bodies of 36 unauthorized miners had been brought to the surface over the weekend by other illegal miners, who alleged there had been an underground fire in an abandoned area of the shaft. The incident is reminiscent of a similar fire at the company’s St. Helena mine in 2007 that killed 23 illegal miners. Neither police nor mining executives have an accurate sense of the scale of illegal mining in the country, but Ben Coetzee, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said there is no question it is widespread. “If you take just this recent incident with Harmony … you can say with reasonable surety that this a major threat to the industry,” Mr. Coetzee said. Mining Minister Susan Shabangu after visiting the Eland shaft condemned the practice of illegal mining, and said a bigger effort was needed to stop syndicates from entering South Africa’s old mines. Capt. Stephen Thakeng of the South African Police Service said that investigations in Free State have produced evidence of syndicates operating around abandoned and older mines. “We’re not clear on the numbers, but we suspect it involves a lot of people,” Capt. Thakeng said, adding that the syndicates have lured workers from Lesotho and other countries to work illegally underground where they often live below the surface for months at a time. Illegal mining is rife across a spectrum of minerals, but tends to target gold because it is easier to identify and the price of the metal has remained strong for several years, Institute for Security Studies’ Mr. Coetzee said. The mines in Free State also are among the deepest in the world, operating to depths of about four kilometers and extending for many more kilometers like a web of interconnecting shafts and tunnels targeting ore veins. “This area of the country in particular, between Free State north to Johannesburg, has a lot of unused shafts, which means various uncontrolled access points,” Mr. Coetzee said. “A lot of the old mines belong to someone else or are abandoned, but are interconnected, which makes it almost impossible for companies to control.” Mr. Coetzee said the illegal miners threaten the structure of shafts, in some cases removing supports as they work their way through old tunnels to access gold-bearing material. They also have been known to cause explosions underground, smoking or lighting cooking stoves in areas with concentrations of methane and other gases, he said. The Congress of South African Trade Unions in a statement said it was demanding a full investigation into the fatalities at the Eland shaft, while trade union Solidarity said the Department of Minerals should put together a task team to tackle illegal mining. “It is a gray area that nobody wants to touch,” said Solidarity spokesman Jaco Kleynhans. “The workers at the affected mines are the ones who bear the brunt, because mine management at various companies has now prohibited taking food underground out of fear that their employees could possibly sell it to the illegal miners, or zama-zamas, as they are known.” The union said 73 mine workers have died this year in South Africa, while at least 81 illegal miners have been killed. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., Africa’s largest producer of the metal, hasn’t had a similar problem with illegal mining in South Africa, in part because none of its mines connect with abandoned shafts or the mines of other companies, spokesman Alan Fine said. “We are very conscious of the potential for this to become an issue,” Mr. Fine said. “We have put in place a sophisticated security infrastructure and do regular audits of access controls.” Harmony said that as it has cracked down on the problem, in the last two weeks alone 294 unauthorized miners have been brought to the surface at Eland and have been charged. In March, it said 114 people, including nine mine employees and five contract workers, were arrested at its mines over a 10-day period and more than 1.6 million rand ($200,480) in explosives, cash, gold-bearing material and other goods were confiscated.

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