Tunatazama - Community Monitors

Virginia Vent Shaft Mining Disaster

Makhotla Sefuli

At least 31 illegal miners died in a gas explosion in a shuttered gold mine in Welkom, Free State, in June 2023. The vent shaft where the disaster occurred has been abandoned since the 1990s, according to reports. It used to be operated by Harmony Gold Mine. The locals call it the V5 shaft, and another one is a ventilation shaft similar to this one on a privately owned farm between Bronville and Virginia. These two ventilation shafts are used by artisanal miners to gain access to the underground.

Artisanal miners can be divided into three groups, those coming from Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Virginia is dominated mainly by Lesotho nationals who operate as different groups. One of these groups is led by Moshesha, who is responsible for recruiting young men from Lesotho under the guise of finding them formal employment in the mining industry. These young men come to the Free State under the false impression that they are coming to work in the legitimate mines in South Africa. Upon arrival, their passports are confiscated and they are conscripted to work in the informal mine practice against their will. 

The second group is led by Khaka, and is based in Bronville and Hani Park in Welkom. He also owns several businesses around the area. Like his counterpart in Virginia, he too confiscates passports and forces young men to go underground against their will.

Another common factor between these two men is that they own a herd of livestock – they both have kraals next to the mine tailings. They employ young men from Lesotho to work as their shepherds. Their livestock is always grazing in the area around the mine tailings and ventilation shafts where they normally lower people to the underground. The shepherds double-up their mandate, serving as spies for anything suspicious or movement around the mine tailings or the ventilation shaft, especially the police or private security vehicles. In most instances, the security guards are in cahoots with these people, although not all of the security guards.

31 miners

On the morning of June 24, 2023, I was with journalists when we met a group of young men who work as artisanal miners in Bronville. I engaged them to assist us and thereafter we went to the site where the disaster took place: first they took us to the ventilation shaft that is on a privately owned farm. After a few minutes we had to  vacate that area because they feared that the farmer may call the police. From there, we headed to the ventilation shaft where the incident took place. 

Upon arrival we had to get permission from the chief of the site after paying a certain amount of money. The chief is anyone who lives near the ventilation shaft to ensure that it is not hijacked by any rival gang, always armed with assault rifles of no particular origin.

At the ventilation shaft, we found it still leaking methane gas. It was visible – even to the naked eye – with a very strong smell that even got one of the journalists dizzy for the later part of the tour.

They told us that on the 18th May 2023 a “shepherd” witnessed a group of white people driving in private security vehicles approaching the ventilation shaft site. They took out canisters with the words gas written on it, and threw them down the shaft. He even took a video of the whole incident with his cell phone (this is anecdotal but I’m still to obtain the video from one of them). It should also be noted that any piece of information from these guys comes with a price. I had to buy them cigarettes and alcohol to get them to speak to me in the local language to prevent the journalists from hearing all the things we were discussing.

In the case of the 31 miners who died in the explosion, they were all recruited from the same village in Maseru (Lesotho). They were all promised formal employment in the mining industry in South Africa under false pretences. Some of them are as young as sixteen years, and their families are demanding answers from Moshesha since he is the one who brought them to South Africa.

Out of 31 miners who perished, only two were retrieved from the underground. Apparently their families are living in Virginia. I am still waiting for one of the guys to furnish me with their names and the whereabouts of their families in Virginia. They did not tell me exactly how they were retrieved from the shaft but what they told me is that it takes twenty men and a rope of 3 kms length tied to a towbar of a double cab bakkie to haul one person from the underground.

One of the men is an artisanal miner aged 38, who began working from the age of 21. At first he was smuggled by an onsetter in an officially functioning mine. An onsetter is defined as a person who is stationed in a cabin and all controls are within reach for the loading and unloading of the cages, shaft signalling, and other car control equipment at the shaft bottom. After the closure of many shafts from the fully functioning mines, they started to focus on ventilation shafts and closed derelict mine shafts.

Lucrative business

According to these men, the business is lucrative and that is the reason they will always go underground despite all the risks. One man can make R10,000 in three days but 30% goes to “the person who owns you”. That is the person who brought you from the villages and introduced you to the industry.

Most of these men are married with families and they are able to support their families with the money they make from the proceeds of artisanal mining.

What happened in Virginia is only a tip of an iceberg according to them, as many bodies are still unaccounted for. Many violent fights break out underground between rival gangs and that results in many deaths that go unreported. According to them, many bodies are either retrieved and dumped in the bushes or left to decompose underground.

Since these people belong to an association, it is their wish to be formalised as an industry to work freely and be granted permission through permits by the government.

In one of my follow up discussions with one of them, he told me that he took a group of journalists from Aljazeera to the site of the incident and they were confronted by the police and the private security. When they arrived, they found the methane gas no longer coming from the shaft, the following day when they visited the site they found the methane again coming from the shaft. The suspicion is that the methane was deliberately put out because on the said day of the 27th June, it is the day Minister Gwede Mantashe visited the site with his entourage. Miraculously the methane was back on the following day. When I left the place where people come to earn a living and sometimes die, it was clear to me that they fought for every shaft. Sometimes, the security guards collaborate with illegal miners and that has given an element of mistrust among security personnel and even in the other “camps”. Often these conflicts result in loss of lives.