It has been nearly three years since the families of Solomon Nyirenda, Yvonne Mnisi and Pretty Nkambule set up camp outside the gates of Lily gold mine in Mpumalanga, awaiting the revival of a mine that was shut down and placed in business rescue after a key support pillar collapsed and sent the container in which they were dispensing safety equipment crashing into the bowels of the earth.
The container, and their bodies, remain there to this day.
“We moved here on the 30th of April 2019, just before Workers Day [May 1], to draw attention to our predicament,” says Harry Mazibuko, spokesperson for the families and a former Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) official working in the mine.
“We’ve been camping here ever since,” he adds.
On Tuesday (January 25), the families will have been camped outside Lily mine for 1 000 days. It’s an extraordinary and solemn vigil that the families say will not end until they get closure on the fate of their loved ones.
Given the remoteness of the mine in rural Mpumalanga, the families realise they are far from the public eye and their vigil goes largely unnoticed.
In the hope of highlighting their plight, they invited Moneyweb to hear their stories.
When the pillar collapsed on February 5, 2016, 76 miners were trapped underground. Thembi Nkosi Makhabela, a former drill rig operator at Lily, was one of them.
“The accident happened at about 8am, and I was on seven level underground. We were able to get to a safe place where we knew rescue operators would find us.”
The mine and all its working infrastructure ground to a halt, leaving the trapped miners to make their way through the dust and the confusion to prearranged assembly points. As part of their safety training, miners are prepared for events such as this.
By the end of the day, rescue workers managed to locate the missing miners and bring them to the surface. All but Solomon Nyirenda, Yvonne Mnisi and Pretty Nkambule.
Elmon Mnisi, father of Yvonne and also an underground mine worker, trembles with emotion when reflecting on that terrible day that his daughter disappeared into the depths of the mine.
His anger is directed at the Vantage Goldfields mine management whose neglect, he says, allowed this to happen.
The exact causes of the pillar collapse are the subject of an ongoing magisterial inquest which resumes later this month and will hear testimony from rock engineers as to how the so-called crown pillar came crumbling down, and whether it was through neglect or accident.
Family members say they have had little contact with mine management since the accident happened, but this is disputed by Vantage Goldfields CEO Mike McChesney.
“I’ve engaged with the families many times since the accident and always had good relations with them until Fred Arendse [Arqomanzi’s BEE partner] came along and started throwing largesse their way,” he claims.
“Since 2019, my relationship with the family soured and I was chased away from the encampment. The camp exists as long as it has because it is a sponsored event and is an attempt to embarrass Vantage, but most of the surrounding community sees through this,” adds McChesney.
Arendse told Moneyweb that his company Siyakhula Sonke Empowerment Corporation (SSC), part of the Arqomanzi consortium bidding for control of the Barbrook and Lily mines, has spent R1.13 million on food for the families over a period of five years, and a further R61 000 on schooling for the six orphaned children of Yvonne Mnisi and Pretty Nkambule (Solomon Nyirenda had no children).
“Originally, the families set up camp within the mine where they could pray for their missing family members, but they were very brutally thrown out of the mine when Vantage and the business rescue practitioners got an interdict against them,” says Arendse.
“They then started camping outside the mine and they asked for help. I purchased a tent for them when I was asked and every week I provide money for some food. How can you not support people in these desperate circumstances?”
In the battle for the future of Lily and Barbrook, there are multiple competing viewpoints about what went wrong, at whose hands, and why.
Says Mazibuko: “We are camped here because we want closure. This mine didn’t come from a tree. It has owners and managers. Those responsible must be held to account – if they are found responsible. What we know is that rock engineers warned of the potential for this pillar to collapse years before it happened.”
The incident has scarred the community, not least for the tragedy of the three missing mine workers. The shutdown of the Lily mine and its sister Barbrook mine, a short distance away, robbed the nearby town of Louisville of its soul and its oxygen.
More than 700 mine workers lost their jobs and many of them remain unemployed.
Sifiso Mavuso, the brother of Pretty, was an accounting student at the University of Johannesburg when the accident happened. He abandoned his studies to care for the family and join the vigil outside the Lily mine gate.
A glimmer of hope returned to the community last year when mining company Arqomanzi, which has put in a proposal to rescue the mines (and wrest control from Australian-owned Vantage Goldfields), paid R15 000 to each of 567 miners as an initial payment of their full claims for wages, and then took cession of their claims against the mine.
The fact that the mine has been shuttered for six years, and remains trapped in the court system, is a source of bitterness among the family members holding vigil outside Lily.
Every day the mine remains shut is an affront to the memory of their loved ones. “Pretty was a good person. She was a pillar to the family, and was the main breadwinner,” says her mother, Lomvimbi Mavuso, fighting back tears.
“All I want is for her to be retrieved.” Pretty’s four children are now raised by Lomvimbi.
None of the families of the missing mine workers are prepared to concede that their loved ones have died – not until presented with the evidence, and that will only happen when the mine reopens and the container in which they were working is recovered.
The timing of that depends in large part on the outcome of two cases before the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA).
“We have so many questions,” says Rose Mkabi, mother to Yvonne Mnisi.
“Yvonne’s two boys [now aged seven and 16] keep asking ‘When is Mom coming back?’ So I am living here now. I have not gone back home since I moved here in 2019.” The two boys are now raised by their grandmother.
“Solomon [Nyirenda] was a colleague of mine in Amcu and was a health and safety representative for the mine,” says Mazibuko.
“He really cared for people and was a strict and principled man. We had many fights with management over health and safety issues.”
Mazibuko hesitates as a bakkie approaches.
“These are zama-zamas [illegal miners] … they are still working the mine,” he claims.
A few minutes later an SUV whizzes past the assembly.
“That’s the leader of the zama-zamas,” says one of the family members.
(Lily mine’s business rescue practitioner Rob Devereux disputes the claims of family members that illegal mining is happening on site.)
A community under attack
There’s nervousness in the air, and for good reason. Those encamped outside the gates of Lily have been subjected to repeated attacks, some of them by known criminals in the area.
The first attack involved the detonation of an explosive device just meters away from where the families were sleeping. The bomb squad was called out to investigate, though nothing ever came of this.
In the next attack, a few months later, the perpetrators poured petrol over the tent where several women sleep. As the tent dissolved in a fiery blaze above their heads, the criminals told them to stay where they were or be shot when they exited. The young men nearby heard the commotion and rushed to put out the fire, scaring the criminals away in the process.
On another occasion gunshots were fired at the settlement.
On April 8 last year, while community members were meeting with the area chief at his residence, a gang rampaged through the makeshift settlement and torched most of it.
The alleged gang leader, a known armed robber released from prison on parole, will answer for the case in the coming weeks. Community members want to find out who put the criminals up to these attacks, and why.
“I’m amazed at the restraint of the families, given the provocations they’ve endured,” says Neil Herrick, CEO of Arqomanzi.
Mine failures of this kind are seldom without incident, but this one is particularly ugly.
McChesney says accusations have been levelled at Vantage for these attacks, but believes the source of the conflict is inter-community rivalries.
“It’s ridiculous to try to pin the blame on these attacks on us. The perpetrators and their motives are well known in the community.”
Heated accusations from both sides
The two parties fighting for control of the assets are Arqomanzi and Vantage Goldfields SA (VGSA, under whose watch the accident occurred).
Arqomanzi became the largest creditor in Vantage when it acquired, from Standard Bank, loan claims of R391 million and R189 million in Vantage Goldfields and Barbrook respectively. Mimco is the company that controls Lily mine. All three companies (VGSA, Barbrook and Mimco) are under business rescue.
Arqomanzi acquired these claims from Standard Bank for a song (R15.5 million), a strategy deemed ”innovative manoeuvring” by Acting Judge Roelofse in the Mpumalanga High Court in 2019 when Vantage challenged its standing as a creditor.
The court found that Arqomanzi was indeed a valid creditor and ordered that the business rescue practitioners may not unilaterally amend a business rescue process without creditor approval, specifically the approval of the largest creditor Arqomanzi.
Two further court cases were won by Arqomanzi and these are currently being appealed by Vantage at the SCA.
Both sides lay criminal charges against each other
Late last year Arqomanzi, in a note to creditors, accused Vantage of using a forged letter from HSBC as proof of funding – something Vantage has denied.
Herrick has since laid criminal charges against Vantage for trying to pass off a forged letter to creditors, and recently pressed charges against the business rescue practitioners for failing to report the matter to the relevant authorities.
McChesney last week sent out a note to creditors advising that he had laid charges of his own against Arqomanzi, Herrick and Mazibuko, among others.
He further claims Arqomanzi’s allegations against Vantage’s funding proposals are a “false and complete fabrication” and says the company does not have the funding required, nor a valid rescue plan, to reopen the mines – echoing Arqomanzi’s claims against Vantage.
Last week Arqomanzi held an informal meeting with creditors and showed what appeared to be valid proof of funding from its Hong Kong-based backer.
It has taken cession of the majority claims in the companies in rescue, but says the business rescue practitioners are giving it the cold shoulder. Both sides accuse each other of not having valid funding in place to rescue the mines.
“What are we supposed to do?” asks Devereux, one of the business rescue practitioners.
“There are a number of matters still to be decided by the Supreme Court, so we have to let the court process run its course. If the court decides in favour of Arqomanzi, then so be it. Until then we have to let the court decide.”
That’s cold comfort for the family members who wonder whether they will spend the next year camped outside the Lily mine gate, waiting for someone to retrieve the container in which the bodies of their loved ones remain entombed.