SUMMARY: The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has come out posing serious questions about the recent slime dam disaster that occurred in Jagersfontein in Free State. The Union points out that there have been previous similar incidents, and questions why the government is not doing more to be prepared. The Union is writing to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) and Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) to demand an urgent audit of all mining infrastructure while it is urging CEOs of mines to provide information of possible infrastructure that might pose a similar risk to human settlements and the environment.
On Sunday, 11 September 2022 the wall of a slime dam burst and spilled mud and water into the town of Jagersfontein and surrounding areas. According to reports, there have been three (3) confirmed fatalities, dozens of injuries and hundreds of displaced people as a result. The dam is part of the diamond mining infrastructure of the diamond mining that took place in the area since the diamond rush of the 1870s, and it was formally owned by De Beers. The current owner is from Dubai and known as Stargems Holdings.
“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families and loved ones of those people who died because of this disaster”, said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “We wish all those who were injured a speedy recovery, and we call on government to ensure that those who were displaced to be placed in temporary accommodation as soon as possible, and that they are given the much-needed financial aid to restore their lives”, he said. 2
According to reports, the Minister of Minerals and Energy, Mr Gwede Mantashe first said that the tailings dam does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Department of Minerals and Energy (DMRE), due to it being declared the property of the owners by the High Court in 2007, and subsequently sold to the Superkolong Consortium in 2010. On 1 April 2022, the Competition Commission unconditionally approved the merger between the Superkolong Consortium and the Dubai-based Stargem Holdings.
“It is unacceptable that mining-related activities can ever fall outside of the jurisdiction of the DMRE, and therefore outside of the reach of the MPRDA [Mining and Petroleum Resources Development Act] and the Mine Health and Safety Act [MHSA],” said Mathunjwa. “Surely the Department must have an accurate record of all mining operations in the country, whether or not such infrastructure is functional or not”, he added.
Other shocking reports in the media show that the owner of the dam was warned to stop operations due to the risk as long as two years ago. Apparently, the reason for the warning was that the mining company had already exceeded the volumes authorised to store billons of tonnes of waste. The warnings came from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), and allegedly the owner had stabilised the wall since.
“One must ask why nothing was done following the warnings”, said Mathunjwa. “It cannot be sufficient to say that we have warned you but there are no consequences. Surely these government departments [DMRE and DWAF] could have taken more punitive measures if the problem was not attended to”, he said.
This is not the first incident of this kind in the Free State. On 22 February 1994, a similar incident happened not far from Jagersfontein in the small mining town of Virginia, also in the Free State. The wall of a tailings dam broke on that fateful afternoon and mining waste spilled for more than four kilometres into the suburb of Merriespruit, leading to the deaths of 17 people.
“The fact that this has happened before, and that it led to the death of 17 people, makes it even more difficult to understand why we were supposedly caught unaware”, said Mathunjwa. “Surely, we could have learnt from the previous incident and taken some proactive steps to prepare for possible recurrences”, he said.
AMCU is writing to the DMRE to demand an audit of all mining infrastructure including tailings dams. In their letter, AMCU is calling for this audit to be specific in terms of the location of this infrastructure and its proximity to human settlements, as well as the possible environmental fallout and contingency planning for such instances.
“It is high time that this government starts taking stock in a proper way and come to the table as regulator in the mining and energy sector”, said Mathunjwa. “We have been calling upon the Department to fulfil its role as regulator for many years, and we even handed over a memorandum to them in this regard on 20 March 2018”, he said.
On 20 March 2018, AMCU organised concurrent protest marches to the offices of the DMRE in Polokwane, Durban, Welkom as well as to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. A memorandum of demands, focusing on the failure of the DMRE to act as regulator in the mining and energy sector, was handed over to Minister Gwede Mantashe and his officials at the various points in the country. Part of this memorandum was the proposal that unemployed graduates be recruited to work for the DMRE in order to strengthen its inspectorate. The DMRE has not implemented AMCU’s proposals to date.
“The problem in our country, since the late 1800s, is that government is captured by the minerals and energy complex. Since gold and diamonds were discovered, our country has been run by the 3
mining bosses. They decide what must be law, and they decide which laws they will comply with”, Mathunjwa said.
“All that matters to them is profit, and killing workers to get to their money is nothing to them. Human lives mean nothing to the greedy capitalist, because it is all about maximum profit”, he said. “What we need is a capable State with the political will and power to regulate the sector by ensuring that all laws and regulations are being complied with”, Mathunjwa concluded.
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For interviews: President Joseph Mathunjwa