A standoff between guards and illegal miners at one of South Africa’s biggest gold mines this week erupted in a mini war, prompting fears of another Marikana.
Booby Jordan reports for Sunday Times
Security guards patrolling Blyvooruitzicht mine outside Carletonville on the far West Rand came under fire from an army of more than 100 illegal miners – some of whom shot at them from inside the mine’s main staff village.
It is the latest in string of worrying incidents at the liquidated mine home to 10 000 people who live among radioactive slime dams, and mine water and a wasteland of shattered mine buildings.
The Sunday Times visited the once world-famous mine, this week, under armed escort, just hours after a massive gun battle there.
Groups of illegal miners were still hard at work, but scattered when guards fired over their heads, abandoning makeshift outdoor gravel pits.
At one site, miners left a pile hard hats next to a series of Jamison tables – sloping earth tables where gold-bearing gravel is sifted. At another site, pans into a large poll next to the mine’s vandalised sewage treatment plant – now used to sift gravel, particularly late at night.
A fire still burnt where miners had tried to crack the concrete around a large metal pipe, and one man’s meagre packed lunch of two apples bore testimony to the desperation that has turned Blyvoor from a global success story into a humanitarian disaster.
The government has turned its back on the problem, reluctant to intervene and refusing to release information about Mine Closure Trust Funds.
The Merafong municipality can no longer afford to keep the water and electricity going, and the liquidators have appealed for outside help.
A tour of the site established that:
• Mine security has resorted to using a drone to monitor illegal miners, who throw rocks at it;
• The gaping entrance to a mine shaft more than 1 km deep sits at the centre of the property, stripped of all metal protection;
• The cost of rehabilitating the mine has rocketed to more than R100 million, but there is only R36 million set aside for this in the mine closure trust fund; and
• Acid mine water pollution is affected livestock. A study found cattle grazing near an affected dam had a uranium concentration in their kidneys 4 000 times higher than normal.
Having produced more than 1 000 tons of gold, silver, uranium and other minerals in almost 80 years, the mine closed when Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mining Company – largely owned by DRDGold went into liquidation two years ago.
It comes with a liability of close to R1-billion, according to court documents.
But while men in suits are running away, illegal miners in threadbare overalls are flooding in.
Louis Nel, a private contractor in charge of mine security, said some miners were armed with assault rifles. He said a shootout on Monday night was the stuff of Hollywood.
“We chased them and they ran into the bushes. Then we had a gunfight. They even started shooting out of some of the mine houses.
“I don’t think this is going to end. The squatter camps here are not going to disappear”, Nel said.
“Blyvoor should be a lesson, but it doesn’t seem anybody wants to learn.”
Sikeme Lekhooana, chairman of the Blyvooruitzicht community committee, said: “We are used to gunshots. My five-year-old boy knows about gunshots”. He also, said Lekhooana, knew about raw sewage in the streets, a daily part of life there.
The Department of Mineral Resources did not respond to queries. The two companies at the centre of the drama, DRD Gold and Village Main Reef, distanced themselves from the mine.
DRDGold entered into a sale agreement with Village Main Reef after the mine applied for business rescue in 2011.
However, as Village Main CEO Marius Saaiman told the Sunday Times: Village is not, and has never been, the owner of Blyvoor. The acquisition of the asset was never concluded and ministerial approval was never granted.”
DRDGold CEO Niel Pretorius said government administrative delays in issuing new-order mineral rights had exacerbated the problem. “Blyvoor is cerntainly an example of how a mine, despite being comprehensively capitalised (R400 million by DRDGold and R160million by Village Main Reef) can collapse if production is interrupted or compromised.
‘Pass the parcel’ flaw in legislation blamed
The humanitarian crisis at the Blyvooruitzicht mine has cast a spotlight on mining legislation, which experts say allows mining companies to walk away from problem mines.
Blyvooruitzicht whistleblower Mariette Liefferink, who has campaigned for mine owners to be held accountable for environmental damage, said the mine illustrated everything that was wrong with the local mining industry.
“It is a human rights violation par excellence and an ecological disaster”, she said. “It shows the consequences of a mine that is not properly closed.”
Catherine Horsfield, programme head of mining at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said it was difficult to understand why DRDGold was not held accountable for the situation.
There was a South African trend for large mining companies to “pull out most of the resource and then sell their mining rights to lesser-known, less-established mining companies”, she said.
“And because the Department of Mineral Resources does not require public participation in these transfers, those transfers fly under the radar. These smaller companies then pull out what is left of the reserve and cannot afford to clean up and so go insolent or disappear.”
The shambles was highlighted in a recent academic study by Tracy Humby, of the Wits School of Law. Humby said loopholes in legislation pertaining to mining and liquidations allowed mining companies to hand over responsibility for mine closure to other companies.
This “pass the parcel” approach to custodianship of the closure plan, whereby the “gift” ended up in the hands of the weakest, undermined the value and integrity of the planning approach to mine closures, Humby said in her article.