Johannesburg – Exhausted and in a state of apparent shock, the man staggered as he leaned on two paramedics while being led to an awaiting ambulance. In searing heat, his almost shredded golf shirt gleamed with bloodstains and dust.
Cheering, ululation and clapping filled the air.The illegal miner had just emerged from the belly of the earth at a disused mine in George Harrison Park in Langlaagte, Joburg.
He was among a group of about 30 illegal miners who had been trapped at the mine since Wednesday. Three others were rescued. Two were arrested and the third was taken to hospital.
The zama zamas, as illegal miners are known, call the mine “FNB” because they say it’s lucrative.
On Sunday, rescue workers and an army of police officers raced against time to save the others who remained trapped. The illegal miners’ anxious families anxiously waited for news.
An unconfirmed number of zama zamas had apparently entered the disused shaft on Wednesday, and when they failed to emerge, 16 more went down the next day to look for them. Police were then informed, and rescue efforts started on Sunday morning. Emergency services and mine rescue officials said the rescue operation were complex and dangerous. As darkness set in, tension began to rise as the frustrated men standing around the fence that stood between them and their trapped colleagues begged to be allowed to conduct the rescue.
Among those pleading to the officials was 30-year-old Ian, who was one of the last to see the trapped miners alive.
“We were going down to find the one we were told was dead,” he said. “We were all walking in a line, about 15 of us, and suddenly the torch on my head stopped working.
“As I was trying to fix it, I asked the guy behind me to help me. After we fixed it and I looked ahead, I saw only smoke. I couldn’t see the others. When we started shouting for them it was silent till we started hearing cries of: ‘Oh God! Please help us!’.”
Ian said they did their best and managed to save five people but then they had to leave.
Among the miners trapped were Ian’s close friends and relatives who live with him in Roodepoort.
“Oscar is family, he came with me from home in Zimbabwe and he came out alive. I felt happy when he came out alive but I’m still worried about my other brother who’s still stuck down there,” he said, eyes red from exhaustion.
The illegal miners complained that they were being lied to, and that the rescue workers were too fat and ignorant to know what to do and were wasting time.
The last media briefing held by Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba and Mines Rescue Service chief executive Christo de Klerk before they all left the scene left the miners more upset.
De Klerk said it took the rescue team more than two-and-a-half hours to travel 1.5km in the mine. The illegal miners said they usually travelled that distance in 45 minutes.
The two rescue teams went down with one of the illegal miners, Simon, to help them find those trapped. When Simon reported back to his peers, he told them that the police didn’t let him go down far with them.
Another miner said: “He says he went down but that it was the white people that went further till they encountered too much smoke.”
The rescue mission was called off late on Sunday. De Klerk said the conditions underground were not safe to continue.
“At this stage we are not postponing the rescue. We just have to put it on hold. There’s definitely an underground fire burning. We have to monitor and see when the fire stops or the gases dissipate, and then we can proceed further.”
The illegal miners were unperturbed by the information. They said they were planning their own operation and were waiting for the officials to leave.
Sangomas were also on the scene and said a snake underground had informed them that it would cause the disaster if the illegal miners failed to perform a ritual at the shaft. They said the illegal miners hadn’t heeded their advice.
The miners said they would wait for the sangomas’ go-ahead before they started their own rescue bid. “We’re still going to speak to the ancestors when we wake up tomorrow morning,” one said.
Mashaba blamed the rising cases of illegal mining on the lack of rule of law and vowed to deal with this scourge as soon as possible.