SUMMARY: The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Lily Mine Disaster this year. The Union bemoans the fact that tardy government reaction and endless litigation are prolonging the suffering of the workers and communities dependent on the operations, which remain in business rescue. AMCU makes a series of proposals on how the container with the three (3) trapped mineworkers can be retrieved, and the mine can be reopened.
5 February 2022 will mark six (6) years since the day on which the collapse of a mine shaft at the Lily Mine in Barberton, Mpumalanga trapped a container with three (3) mineworkers underground. The three mineworkers, Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyirenda remain underground since the incident, and their families and loved ones are still left without closure.
“We hope and trust that this would be the last commemoration during which the container remains underground”, said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa. “Following the disaster, we wrote to the former State President, requesting him to declare it a national disaster, so that the necessary state resources can be directed to retrieve the container and reopen the mine”, he said. “We also requested the intervention of the Minister [of Mineral Resources and Energy] and earlier this year we wrote to the sitting State President [Honourable Cyril Ramaphosa] for his assistance. We thought because they are former worker leaders, they would be sympathetic to the plight of these workers and the livelihood of the communities, but still our proposals have not been responded to”, Mathunjwa said.
In March 2016, AMCU embarked on a protest march to DMRE to hand over a memorandum of demands to the former Minister, Honourable Mosebenzi Zwane, including a demand to retrieve the container. However, nothing was done in this regard.
Every year since 2017, AMCU convened a public commemoration of the Lily Mine Disaster in remembrance of the trapped mineworkers. These commemorations, organised for the families and loved ones of the trapped mineworkers, are often attended by stakeholders in business as well as the DMRE. Last year, due to the Covid-19 level 3 regulations prohibiting public gatherings of any kind, AMCU opted for an awareness campaign at the site of the disaster in Barberton, Mpumalanga as well as on social media.
AMCU has consistently pointed out that the collapse of Lily Mine was due to shortcuts being taken by mine management, in their pursuit of maximum profit at the expense of the health and safety of mineworkers.
According to reports, the crown pillar located between the roof of levels 3 and 4 collapsed and caved into the old underground workings of the mine. This resulted in the container, which was used as a lamp room and part of the surface infrastructure, falling in and being buried under the resultant rocks and soil.
The initial section 11 report by the company declared that the collapse was not due to negligence. The section 72 report by the DMRE declared that no activities can take place at the site until a comprehensive investigation is done. However, the section 72 report failed to pronounce on the cause of the accident. An inquest into the incident, led by Senior Magistrate Anne-Marie van der Merwe assisted by two rock engineers, is ongoing since late last year.
AMCU is consistently repeating its clarion call for the Mine Health and Safety Act to be amended, so that mining bosses can be held criminally liable if they are found to have been negligent during investigations following mine accidents.
“It is important to say that one must not only blame business for what happened here”, said Mathunjwa. “Capitalists will do what capitalists do, which is to chase profit – at all cost. It is the job of government as the regulator to ensure that the health and safety of workers are not compromised”, he said. “The Department [of Mineral Resources and Energy] needs to beef up its inspectorate. If the DMRE was doing their work, this mine could have been closed so that the crown pillar could be supported before production continues. This could have prevented everything”, Mathunjwa said.
AMCU previously proposed that the DMRE must recruit unemployed graduates to be reskilled on the relevant health and safety legislation and regulations, to be deployed as inspectors at mines and other workplaces. AMCU proposed that the number of inspectors per mine must be increased proportionally to the number of mineworkers who work at a particular mine.
“The office of the Chief Inspector [of Mines] must also be strengthened in terms of human resources”, said Mathunjwa. “You can’t have one Chief Inspector who is responsible for all these mines. It is simply too much for him. The Department must be strengthened by appointing senior officials reporting directly to the Chief Inspector, and they must carry full delegated authority”, Mathunjwa said.
AMCU has consistently argued that the functions and powers of the DMRE should separated, so that the Minister who issues mining licences and the Chief Inspector who must ensure health and safety, operate independently. The Union argued that the current set-up leads to conflicting interests, and it also called for another independent department dedicated to ensuring compliance with health and safety legislation, which does not fall under the authority of the Minister. Under the circumstances, the Minister is between a rock and a hard place, in that he must issue mining licences to miners, while he is also charged with ensuring compliance with health and safety stipulations.
AMCU has consistently pointed out that government has a very important role to play when it comes to mining in South Africa, because it is custodian of the minerals of the country, and it must ensure that the minerals are used for the socioeconomic benefit of society as a whole.
“Our country’s God-given minerals must serve our country’s people – and not only the narrow financial interests of big business”, said Mathunjwa. “That valley where Lily Mine is located, supports more than five thousand lives. It is therefore quite important that the container is retrieved, and the mine is reopened to bring hope to the community. What we see currently, is nothing but self-inflicted unemployment which results in criminality and despair to the community, robbing them of their dignity”, Mathunjwa said.
The operations of which Lily Mine forms part, were making a contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of South Africa, and therefore it should be regarded as a national asset. Government should have no problem in raising funds to retrieve the container and reopen the mine, so that the families can get closure and the community can regain their livelihoods.
“Nothing prevented government to invest money in addressing these issues”, said Mathunjwa. “We have previously pointed out that they could have utilised the operations’ rehabilitation funds to finance this important work”, he said.
Section 37A of the Income Tax Act, No. 58 of 1962 (the Act) aligns tax policy with environmental regulation. It regulates mining rehabilitation funds (rehabilitation fund) created with the sole object of applying their property for the environmental rehabilitation of mining areas and grants a tax deduction for payments made to such dedicated rehabilitation funds.
In 2017, the rehabilitation funds totalling R1,7 billion of the Gupta-owned Optimum Coal Mine was transferred to an account managed by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy.
“We feel that government is letting the people of this country down by not coming with innovative solutions to address our problems. Why could they not raise funds to resolve this painful matter? Why do we see these inconsistencies? Surely there are funds like the rehabilitation funds which can be legitimately allocated to serve this very important purpose”, said Mathunjwa.
The operations of which Lily Mine forms part, has been in business rescue for a number of years.
Early in 2021, there was a flicker of hope when an Australian consortium acquired the majority shares in Vantage Goldfields, the owner of the mine. The Business Rescue Practitioners (BRPs) subsequently amended the business rescue plan to allow for all approved secured claims, approved post-amendment funding claims and approved preferent claims would be discharged by means of payment to such creditors of an amount equal to 100% of their approved claims in two tranches.
According to the plan as it stood at the time, the first tranche would 65% of all the approved claims being paid to the relevant creditors within 15 business days of the effective date of the amendment to the business rescue plan; and the balance of 35% would be paid within 60 business days of the effective date of the amendment to the business rescue plan. The amendments also indicated the intention at the time to commence with the implementation of the plan for the reopening of the Lily Mine by 2 July 2021.
However, the implementation of the amended business rescue plan was interdicted, and various business interests have been embroiled in what seems to be endless litigation until now.
“We are still the majority trade union at these operations, and our focus remains squarely on our members and the communities that depend on their livelihoods”, said Mathunjwa. “We have continued to invest our time and resources in this project, and we will never stop our campaign until such time as our comrades are brought up so that their families can greet them properly”, he said.
AMCU will continue to engage with all parties who have an interest in the future of Lily Mine.
“As AMCU, we have observed that narrow financial interest groups are motivated by self-interest by engaging in endless litigation which delays closure to the pain and the reopening of the mine. AMCU members, families and community members must not be misled by opportunistic forces”, Mathunjwa concluded.
1545 words excluding summary and headings
For interviews: President Joseph Mathunjwa
Krister J van Rensburg
Head of Department: Organisational Development
Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (AMCU)
Confidential and Privileged
Unless otherwise indicated or obvious from its nature, the information contained in this communication is confidential information and/or a work product. This communication is intended for the use of the individual or entity named above. If the reader of this communication is not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any dissemination, distribution or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited. If you have received this communication in error or are not sure whether it is privileged, please immediately notify us by return e-mail and destroy any copies–electronic, paper or otherwise–which you may have of this communication.