Up to 31 illegal miners thought to have perished in disused Harmony Gold vent shaft

llegal miners (Zama Zamas) are raided on September 30, 2021 in Randfontein, South Africa. Operation O Kae Molao was led by SAPS

UP to 31 suspected illegal miners are thought to have perished at a disused mine at Virginia in South Africa’s Free State province, BusinessLive said.

The shaft was previously operated by Harmony Gold which is assisting the department of mineral resources and energy inspecting the property.

Speaking to Miningmx, Harmony spokesperson Jared Coetzer said the shaft was bought for ventilation purposes by the company in the mid-Eighties. However, a “methane event” shortly after means the shaft was never used by the company. “We kept it open in order to manage the presence of methane,” said Coetzer.

Three bodies are reported to have been retrieved and brought to the surface by other illegal miners, said BusinessLive.

Efforts to retrieve the bodies of the men, believed to be Basotho nationals, are being hampered by conditions at the mine, the department said.

“Although information on this tragic situation comes sporadically, we are doing our best to act on the information,” the department added.

“Working in collaboration with the previous owners of the mine, Harmony, the department’s inspectors have assessed the situation and determined methane levels in the mine ventilation shaft 5 are very high. It is too risky to dispatch a search team to the shaft.

“All relevant stakeholders will endeavour to ensure the suspected deceased illegal miners are brought to the surface.”

Coetzer said it was difficult to know how the illegal miners are thought to have accessed the area. “Illegal miners are known to walk many kilometres underground,” he said. “We are not sure how the illegal miner who reported this to us got into the area.

Illegal mining is at epidemic levels in South Africa.

Citing Sibanye-Stillwater’s annual report published last year, BusinessLive said there were  363 incidents of illegal mining at the company’s mines in 2022 resulting in 1,115 arrests. This compares to 187 incidents and 473 arrests during the firm’s 2021 financial year.

BusinessLive said South Africa’s criminal justice system was ill-equipped to prosecute those responsible. Illegal miners were generally only charged with trespassing and required to pay a R300 admission-of-guilt fine.

“Reported incidents of illegal mining are reduced by the bribery, or coercion, of employees, contractors and officials in an effort to have them turn a blind eye to illicit activity in return for the equivalent of up to four months’ salary in cash,” said Sibanye-Stillwater.