While recent events at Langlaagte have brought their plight to the fore, the lesser-known story is about the men – all volunteers – that go down to rescue them and recover the deceased.
MRS traces its creation back to 1924 when Rand Mines established a Central Rescue Training Station. It exists as a non-profit private sector entity (with funding from its private sector members) to train volunteers for mine rescue work, and provide rescue and recovery services to the South African mining industry.
“We believe we are one of the best of our type in the world,” says MRS CEO, Christo de Klerk.
Due to their outstanding reputation, MRS has assisted with training for companies operating on the continent, as well as places as far afield as China, Iran and Russia.
And it’s the department of mineral resources (DMR) that has been calling ever more frequently as the situation with illegal miners spirals out of control.
“It’s growing every day, both at closed mines and operating ones,” says De Klerk. He attributes part of the recent rise in the problem to the success of the DMR in blocking entry to shafts. Despite their best intentions, the miners have been known to blast through concrete seals, and in one case, removed two metres of overburden that authorities had placed on top of an entrance to hide it from prying eyes.
But the interventions have upped the stakes considerably.
“The activity of the zama zamas have become much more concentrated, and they will sometimes kill each other when they fight over areas to mine,” says De Klerk.
(To see the brutality with which rival factions and gangs undertake turf wars underground, see the photo journey at the bottom of this article, but please be aware it is not for sensitive viewers.)
So MRS only gets involved at abandoned mines at the express request of the DMR. When they do arrive on site, MRS teams take a pointedly neutral stance when dealing with the miners and interacting with law enforcement agencies. In fact, De Klerk, who is one of the first on the scene, makes an effort to befriend the illegal miners. “We cannot operate without their assistance. We have to be guided by the illegal miners.”
This is because of the conditions MRS teams face as they enter mines. They have no plans or maps at their disposal. There is also no lighting, no artificial ventilation, and usually very poor structural support.
“The illegal miners mine the pillars without installing new support. Sometimes its so tight the rescuers have to take off protective equipment to get to the areas where they are required,” says De Klerk. There is also the build-up of deadly gasses such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide at levels of concentration that can kill a person almost immediately.”
Then there are the zama zama’s underground.
“Many times the workers carry on working when we go underground, and we even hear generators,” says De Klerk. The miners often spend weeks and months at a time there, taking food, tools, and explosives down with them.
From estimates made by the Chamber of Mines, a large proportion (70%) of the illegal miners are from neighbouring countries that include Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. So these men come to South Africa through porous borders, enter mines typically located in isolated and remote areas of the country, and undertake work in extremely dangerous circumstances and in environments they have had no prior experience working in.
In these cases, there are no expectant families that have knowledge of the mines they have entered and that can call authorities when they have been missing for prolonged periods.
“I think the figures you see here are just the tip of the iceberg,” says De Klerk, with the implication that as much as 90% of incidents are not being brought to the attention of authorities, and are not being reported.
In terms of injury and fatalities of the rescuers themselves, no rescuers have been injured or killed working at the abandoned mines. But there was a turning point this month, when a rescuer was attacked by a rival faction of zama zamas when accompanying a miner down to an emergency situation. This was the first recorded attack on a rescuer directly.
So on the one hand, you have men driven by desperation and greed that enter these mines. And on the other, a group of people who will voluntarily follow them into harm’s way to for the sole reason of trying to help them. That’s the miracle of the MRS.
MRS PHOTO JOURNEY – THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS
CAUTION: SENSITIVE VIEWERS ARE WARNED THAT THE FOLLOWING PICTURES ARE OF A DISTURBING AND GRAPHIC NATURE, BUT TELL A GRIM STORY OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SOUTH AFRICA’S DERELICT MINES
All photo credits – Mine Rescue Services
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