Tears and joy as mine workers return safely to the surface after Gold One hostage drama
The police have opened a kidnapping case after events at the mine in Springs on the East Rand.
“Oh, thank you, God,” Julia* said as she raised her hands to the sky. She had just heard that her son-in-law, who had been underground for three nights at the Gold One mine in Springs, had phoned on a borrowed cellphone to say he was safe on the surface and would see them soon.
Her son-in-law was one of about 500 miners being held hostage underground in a dispute between the mine and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Amcu claimed to be the majority union with 90% of the 1,850 miners as members. It is applying for a closed-shop agreement which will make it the only union at the mine. This has put it at odds with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and mine management.
Since Monday morning, Julia, her daughter Eunice* and four-month-old Karabo* had waited, their car parked in the shade of a large eucalyptus tree close to the main entrance to the mine.
With Eunice were the relatives of other miners who were held underground. They too waited under the eucalyptus tree.
The wife of a miner, who wanted to be referred to as Mrs Mofokeng, said she had woken at 5am on Monday to find that her husband had not returned from work. By 8am, she was worried and phoned Eunice, to find that her husband hadn’t returned from work either. With baby Karabo and grandma Julia, they drove to the mine entrance and waited.
“The company only told us yesterday what was happening. They sent an SMS at 1.30pm that said our loved ones were underground,” said Mofokeng. “They ended that SMS with ‘until further notice’.”
On Wednesday morning, the hostages slowly began returning to the surface. First came a group of five miners, who had escaped their captors, according to the NUM’s deputy general secretary, Mpho Phakedi. He said the five had got access to one of the mine stopes. The stope is an incline that is used to bring heavy machinery into the mine. He said the stope had been barricaded by the hostage-takers with rocks, but the men had been able to slip through.
“Before they were stopped, another 136 people were able to escape,” he said.
One of those who was able to escape was paramedic Thabiso Stimela, whose father, Alfred, had on Tuesday waited at one of the entrances to the mine in the hope that he would get news of his son. “I am just so happy that he is fine and at home now,” Alfred Stimela said.
Then, in the early afternoon, the police launched their operation, with the assistance of the Proto team, who are trained to perform underground rescues.
No serious injuries
Phakedi said the union had been briefed by mine management who told them that the police had met with resistance, but there were no serious injuries.
Just after 1pm, the miners held underground began trickling up to the surface. From the other side of the fence, outside the mine, loved ones and colleagues watched and shouted greetings.
“The security got to us,” shouted one of the miners, who had just changed out of his mine overalls. As they arrived on the surface, each miner was given a medical checkup.
The police said that four men, including a security officer, were taken to hospital for treatment. A total of 562 mine workers, including the security guard and paramedics, were brought to the surface.
From statements given by those who were held, the police said that detectives had identified about 15 hostage-takers underground.
“The police have seized sticks and screwdrivers which were found in the lift by mine security,” according to an SAPS statement. “A case of kidnapping and assault will be registered for investigation.”
Outside the mine entrance, NUM leadership had a press briefing and called the rescue operation a success.
“We are very happy that finally these people are out,” Phakedi said. He said the union had not yet decided what legal action to take.
“The way forward is that those who are not well, they will be treated, and those who were taken hostage will take leave to recover. Once they are recovered, they will come back into the system.”
Included among the hostages were mine management members, the union said.
The mine management expressed gratitude to all those involved in the operation that ensured the release of the miners.
Amcu was also claiming victory. “I think it is a question of time, but we will be able to get some traction in this whole situation,” said Amcu’s general secretary, Jeff Mphahlele.
On Wednesday afternoon, the union held a vote that Mphahlele said allows it to become the only union on the mine through a closed-shop agreement. However, the NUM claims it still has a majority among the miners of Gold One.
After the miners were given medical checkups they boarded minibuses and were driven out of the mine to their homes.
As each minibus left the mine the families stopped and stared, hoping for a glimpse of their loved ones.
Finally, one minibus stopped and two men climbed out.
Julia rushed over and hugged them.
“This was a life-changing experience. We are not meant to stay underground for so long,” Mofokeng’s husband said. His last meal was what his wife had packed for him on Sunday.
“I came in for my shift and I just had to stay there,” he said.
Other miners were more forthright, saying they had been prevented from leaving. All complained of a lack of food. One female miner said she had had only two slices of bread while underground.
Mofokeng hadn’t slept for two nights and said she wasn’t planning to go to sleep early on Wednesday night.
“You know, I am just going to lie there for a long time and stare at him sleeping,” she said.
*Relatives of the men held hostage did not want to give their full names, fearing that their loved ones would face reprisals from either mine management or the unions for talking to the media. DM
First published by GroundUp.