Our Burning Planet

JAGERSFONTEIN DISASTER

Owners of Free State diamond mine ‘were warned to cease operations two years ago’

Owners of Free State diamond mine ‘were warned to cease operations two years ago’
President Cyril Ramaphosa jumps across mud during his visit to Charlesville to see the devastation to the local community after a tailings dam from the nearby mine burst in Jagersfontein on 12 September 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Free State Director-General Kopung Ralikontsane confirmed that an alarm on potential dangers had been raised and that the disaster at Jagersfontein diamond mine could have been averted.

A director-general in the Free State Office of the Premier, Kopung Ralikontsane, says the disaster at the Jagersfontein diamond mine could have been averted had the owners of the tailings dam that collapsed heeded instructions from the government to cease operations two years ago.   

The company, however, maintains that it is operating legally and is compliant, having undergone independent inspections.  

A tailings dam wall at the mine collapsed on Sunday, causing a mudslide and flooding in nearby residential areas, which killed at least one person (initially it was incorrectly announced by authorities  that three people had died), and displaced more than 200. On Monday, a number of people were still missing, and search and rescue operations continued.

Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe declared the mudslide a disaster. He was expected to visit the area on Tuesday.

Director-General Ralikontsane confirmed that an alarm on potential dangers had been raised more than two years ago.  

“As the province, we find ourselves in a difficult situation as the mine owners were warned to stabilise their wall or cease operation through warning certificates. 

“There are ongoing engagements with the mine owners,” he said.  

The executive mayor of Kopanong, Xolani Tseletsele, had already, in February 2021, warned on social media of potential threats that the mine posed to the nearby community.  

The company that owns the tailings dam, Jagersfontein Developments, on Monday issued a statement saying it was devastated by the breach at its dam and the impacts on the local community, and had set aside millions of rands to help the affected communities.   

“We have made R20-million available immediately for affected people on the ground and the restoration of the town. 

“We extend our deepest condolences to the family of the single fatality. The treatment facility has stabilised activity at the dam. [The company] is cooperating with local authorities and will offer every assistance to the community while undertaking a full investigation.”   

The floodwater was feared to contain toxins, but the company said: “We have confirmation that the wastewater is not hazardous. Jagersfontein Developments remains committed to the wellbeing of the community and will lead clean-up operations.”   

House surrounded by mud when the tailings dam burst open from the nearby local mine in Jagersfontein on 12 September 2022 .Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

Cause of collapse is unknown

The Minerals Council South Africa expressed shock at the disaster.  

“The causes of the collapse of the dam at the Jagersfontein diamond mine, which was shut in the 1970s, are unknown at this stage. The loss of life and injuries sustained in the deluge … as well as the damage to homes and infrastructure is a tragedy,” said Allan Seccombe, head of communications at the council.   

The Minerals Council said the Jagersfontein assets are not owned by any of its members and it had no information about the ownership structure at this stage.   

Seccombe said the council would continue to encourage its members to review the management and operational standards of their tailings dams (which store water and waste that are byproducts of the mining process).   

“In addition to the adoption of best practices that have been made in respect of management practices for tailings storage facilities, the Minerals Council believes that adherence to the ICMM [International Council on Mining and Metals] standard will augment existing national standards and legislative requirements and practices to create a step change for the mining industry to address safety risks and the environmental sustainability of these facilities, and to further improve on the management and governance of tailings dams,” said Seccombe.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the area on Monday afternoon.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi during his visit to Charlesville to witness the extent of the damage after the tailings dam of a nearby mine burst in Jagersfontein, 12 September 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi visit Charlesville to see the devastation to the local community. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)


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Political parties wade in

The EFF called for a thorough investigation into the cause of the disaster and for the owners of the sidings dam to be held to account.  

The EFF wants the mining licence holder to assume responsibility for all the damages incurred by the residents and for those who lost their houses to receive new homes within a reasonable timeframe, “and not be subjected to community halls and strange accommodation as is the norm following a disaster of this magnitude”.  

The EFF said the disaster speaks to the plight of those residing in mining towns, caused by “foreign mining companies who have zero regard for black people’s lives, particularly mine workers and mining companies”, said national spokesperson Sinawo Tambo.   

The Patriotic Front of Azania (PFA) said not only the current owners of the mine must be held accountable, but also the previous ones, De Beers. 

Residents of Charlesville standing on what used to be homes that got damaged when the tailings dam burst open from the nearby local mine in Jagersfontein on 12 September 2022. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

“Government must force De Beers to pay reparations to all families that have been adversely affected by this disaster. Though De Beers sold that mine to a BEE entity called Superkolong in 2010, and promised the local community 10% equity in the new mine ownership, this does not absolve De Beers from general blameworthiness on ecological damages and health hazards created during their tenure as owners of that mine and beneficiaries of apartheid’s racist unethical business regime,” said party president Johnny Maseko.  

He added the tragedy would have not occurred had the dam been properly maintained and regular safety inspections conducted. DM

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  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Good gracious…blaming De Beers for the disaster after having passed on the value of the project to BEE partners as per the governments racist BEE policies has to be the last straw! Time for the ANC to wake up, grow up and accept responsibility for their catastrophic BEE initiatives which should now be past their “sell by” date!

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Always a cheap and very long shot aimed by the EFF. Always waiting on the sidelines to use just such a tragedy to score cheap political points. As if they actually care about the victims. Blaming apartheid is about 28 years too late. Its getting rather out of fashion.

  • virginia crawford says:

    What does it mean, they were warned? Health and safety, environmental laws are meant to be enforced! Fire the officials responsible and lay criminal charges against the mine and those directly responsible. And the EFF and the PFA are right: the mine should pay reparations and build new houses. The mines promise a lot and yet they are surrounded by poverty.

  • Ian McGill says:

    De Beers is a responsible mining company who has sold to BBE community entity. Of course this has been the usual disaster due to non compliance and the DMRE to sit and do nothing when non compliance to mining legislation is ignored. As usual the local politicians will never pass up the opportunity to play the race card and scream exploitation, no mine no town.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Maybe the gov a can go wade thro the collapse of some municipal sewerage infrastructure in their party’s care next. Typically all these political visitors looking for glory in the community fail to hear what the mine company has freely said it will do..

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