South Africa

South Africa

Langlaagte Miners: 17-year-old survives two weeks underground

Langlaagte Miners: 17-year-old survives two weeks underground

After working through the night to rescue trapped illegal miners from a disused mine in Langlaagte, Johannesburg Emergency Services (JES) suspended the search on Tuesday. This after two illegal miners, one alive and one dead and who had been trapped underground for several days, were brought to the surface. Meanwhile two miners, including a 17-year-old who had spent two weeks in the mine, emerged on Tuesday afternoon. By BHEKI C. SIMELANE.

The day’s highlight arrived around 11:00 just as everyone, exhausted from the heat, sought shelter under a few trees near the mine: two dust-coated figures emerged from the entrance. The two appeared fairly strong considering they had been holed up for two weeks underground. The men looked bewildered, but the reason for this, they explained later, was that they did not expect to be greeted by a small crowd at the surface.

The two were swiftly shepherded to safety by the onlookers who warned them that their colleagues had already been arrested. The 17-year-old, Jeremiah Sithole, and his older companion both had sacks of gold treasure strapped to their backs.

Sithole told Daily Maverick how he had survived underground with sufficient food and avoiding the wrath of a snake a local Sangoma said owned the mine.

“I never really encountered any problems underground, and we also had enough to eat. It’s just not easy underground, any way you look at it. It’s extremely hot down there, the job of trailing the gold belt underground can easily become distressing and it is a tedious process, but I’m happy to be alive,” Sithole said.

Sithole and his more experienced friend, who both live in Tembisa, said they were not aware that other Zama Zamas had died in the same mine. Neither had they seen the smoke from a fire that had earlier forced the temporary suspension of the rescue mission.

He said the two of them had been working within their own space for the duration of the two weeks.

“There was never any indications that people had died down there because even as we left, we didn’t notice anything apart from the rope at the entrance, which for a while got us really scared because we knew it shouldn’t have been there,” he said.

Of the two miners brought to the surface on Monday night, one had already died and an earlier search had to be abandoned after the underground fire complicated the rescue mission.

Meanwhile, relatives of the trapped miners gathered at the site, anxious for news.

Daily Maverick spoke to three relatives of the miners from Lesotho, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, who said they would be willing to risk their own lives to search for their relatives underground after the Johannesburg Emergency Services had called off the search.

A group of about 19 people made up of friends and relatives of the missing illegal miners entered the mine around 14:45 on Tuesday and were still conducting the search by late afternoon.

On the surface, however, speculation was rife that some had gone into the mine to search for gold and not their relatives.

Watch: Zama Zamas emerge after rescue called off at Langlaagte mine (EWN)

As desperation grew, Johannesburg Emergency Services (JES) said they were unable to make decisions with regard to the rescue mission and could only offer support for those hurt or injured.

“It isn’t up to us to make the decision whether or not to continue with the rescue operation. Remember, the mines belong to the Department of Mineral Resources, who have a contract with mine rescue. Our participation in this whole process is that when the illegal miners are received to the surface, and are not well, we treat them and transfer them to hospital for further medical assessments,” Synock Matobako, spokesman for JES, said.

Progress on Tuesday also seemed to hinge on the powers of a traditional healer who had spent the day conducting rituals meant to harness a snake which she said “owned” the abandoned mine.

The healer, Florence Moyo, told Daily Maverick that everyone would die if they did not follow her instructions.

“The rituals are quite important. The snake spoke to me two months ago and asked me to warn the illegal miners that they must perform the rituals before going into the mine. People have been coming out since I started performing the rituals.”

Moyo added, “I have been performing the rituals in the mines in Roodepoort since 2014, but the snake demanded that rituals be performed here too.”

Warnings by SAPS’s Kay Makhubela and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane for families not to conduct their own unsupervised rescue missions on Monday were outweighed by the families’ pain and anxiety as they slid down the hole leading to the mine.

Ishmael Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean national, said he was devastated by his cousin’s disappearance. When asked why he had lost hope, Ndlovu said colleagues who had learnt of his death had brought his cousin’s cellphone to the surface.

“They found my boy, but apparently he’s dead. We have proof that he’s dead because even his cellphone was taken from him when his colleagues found out he had died. I just want to take him home, even if he’s dead. Our parents will be happy to receive his body and give him a decent burial. We will never find closure if we don’t find his body. It would kill his parents,” Ndlovu said.

The 17-year-old, Sithole, said he had travelled to South Africa to find work and had resorted to illegal mining when he could not find a job.

While he did not reveal how long he had been involved in illegal mining, he said he would most certainly continue to do so as his only means of survival was underground.

At least seven people have been rescued and arrested since the illegal mining saga in Langlaagte began last Wednesday, but it remains unclear how many still remain trapped. DM

Photo: EWN screen grab


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