On the afternoon of Friday, February 5 2016, Elmon Mnisi received a frantic call. Lily Mine said 90 miners were trapped underground after a lamp room container disappeared in a sinkhole about 60m underground.
He rushed to the scene. “It was bad; we realised that we were in for trouble,” he recounts.
Eighty-seven of those 90 people were soon rescued. But his daughter, Yvonne Mnisi, and her two colleagues, Pretty Nkambule and Solomon Nyirenda, were not. The search went on, with rescuers quickening the pace of the recovery mission, hoping for a breakthrough. In the beginning knocks from inside the container could be heard and mine managers were hopeful that they would reach the three. But as rescuers raced against time there was silence from the container.
What today is known as the Lily Mine tragedy has left the families of the three missing workers distraught and they want closure. On Wednesday, on the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, Mnisi and others took another walk to the mine to see, again, for themselves, the disaster that had befallen them. The ground they walked on had swallowed their children and loved ones.
They camped near the mine in a bid to get the recovery mission restarted. They called on government to assist them to recover the remains of their loved ones.
Mnisi, a pastor and usually a man of placid temperament, is deeply angered by a legal tussle between Vantage Goldfields, the owner of Lily Mine, and Siyakhula Sonke Corporation, that is holding up the mine restarting. A former miner himself, Mnisi, says he is frustrated with the attitude of government and the mine towards them. He says there seem to be no consideration for their anguish. They want mining to continue, this time not for minerals but for the three bodies.
Some families want to perform rituals and prayers at the site of the accident. In the beginning they wanted sangomas to connect with the spirits of the three. They continued to visit the mine area but then the mine said it was too dangerous to do so because the ground was unstable. The mine owners put security guards at the gate, barring anyone from entering.
In 2017 an inquiry by the department of mineral resources into the collapse revealed that it was caused by a waterlogged surface. A specialist told the inquiry that Vantage Goldfields failed to institute a water draining operation. Among other things, the inquiry established that before the 2016 disaster there had been 10 other pillar collapses that had weakened the structure and Vantage Goldfields had not reported this to the relevant authorities. No action was taken against those who erred.
The memory of the unfortunate event on that Friday afternoon will die hard, if at all. Nor will the families of the three forget the love and courage displayed by the residents who heeded the call by the tribal authority and went underground to search for the bodies.
The families of the three are united in the hope their loved ones bodies will be recovered despite their realisation that the government hasn’t done much to compel the mining company to continue with the mission.
Their early optimism that the bodies of their loved ones would be recovered has faded, but they still hold out hope that one day they will find closure.
Trevor Hlungwani is a lecturer in the communications science department at Unisa