Lily Mine documents provide no basis to deem container irretrievable

The following remarks were made by Herman Mashaba, President of ActionSA, at a press conference today regarding our ongoing legal efforts to bring closure and justice to the families and former colleagues of the three deceased miners at Lily Mine.


Good Morning,

On the 22nd of January this year, we addressed a press conference to announce our intention to pursue legal action, and have the container with the 3 trapped miners at Lily Mine in Barberton retrieved.

On that occasion, and, again today, we have heard the heart-breaking messages conveyed by the affected families.

They have expressed their pain, their suffering, and, their refusal to give up on their need to provide a proper burial for their loved ones.

Before I proceed, it is necessary to tell the story of the 3 miners and their families.

Like many miners in our country, Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Nkambule and Solomon Nyerende had lived a tough life, worked themselves to exhaustion under dangerous conditions to provide modest contributions to their families.

On the 5th of February 2016, they were in an above ground container, used as a lamp room, when the mine collapsed and buried them 70m underground, under 20 thousand tonnes of earth. Trapped inside that container, were Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Nkambule and, Solomon Nyerende. These were our fellow South Africans, mothers, sisters, daughters, a son, a brother and, a father.

Can you imagine, the fear they must have felt? What was going through their minds, as that container dropped, trapping them inside, that darkness? Can you imagine the heat, the lack of oxygen, water, food, or communication with the outside world? Can you imagine what suffocating to death must feel like?

The DMRE report of 2017 found mine management responsible for the collapse.

Despite previous smaller collapses, which were not reported as required in law, mining continued without the necessary safety measures recommended by rock and engineering specialists.

As a matter of fact, the report found that mine management continued to issue instructions for mining to continue, around the pillars holding up the mine, leading directly to the eventual collapse on the 5th of February 2016.

Yvonne Mnisi, Pretty Nkambule and Solomon Nyerende, along with the other former miners, knew the risks of their work. But, they never assumed the risk of being buried alive, by what has been found to be the criminally negligent greed of mine management.

5 years prior, the San Jose mine-collapse in Chile, captured the imagination of the world. Miners were trapped 700m underground and a mine rescue operation lasting 69 days. The Chilean President, much of his cabinet, and the international community, including our very own South African Mine Rescue Services, camped outside the mine lending their support to the eventual rescue of these miners.

The miners at Lily enjoyed no such courtesy. A rescue operation was initiated, and was called off on 3 March 2016, never to be resumed. After 4 years of asking, petitioning, and pleading for the support of their government, the former miners and families at Lily Mine were treated with total disdain.

Furthermore, despite the findings of the DMRE report, their effort to open a criminal case against mine management were resisted. However, they eventually filed a case, case number, 01/04/2019 in 2019, despite the fact that a death, on duty, in any mining environment, as a matter of law, should have triggered a police investigation. And, swift action by The Department of Labour, who are responsible for the regulation of Health and Safety Standards, in the work place. Their silence is deafening! Not to mention, the outrage from of the labour unions!

Just last week, the NPA, met with the former miners and affected families, to ask if they wanted to lay criminal charges, demonstrating just how casually this case has been treated.

When they decided to camp outside the mine, to retrieve the container themselves, a court order was obtained and, enforced by heavily armed policemen, to keep them away from the mine. The same policemen, did not seem as concerned by the syndicate of illegal mining taking there, on a daily basis, or the use of petrol bombs to intimidate the former miners and the families.

A business rescue process that was initiated in 2017, has been allowed to be delayed, and stalled at every turn, despite a prospective bidder for this mine, coming forward with a proposal including the retrieval of this container, deemed irretrievable.

On 22 January this year, I announced that we would be bringing together a legal team that would fight the case on behalf of these brave South Africans. I am here today, to share with you, what these efforts have revealed.

Our legal team initiated an application to obtain the documents that the Department used to deem the container irretrievable. This was done through the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000.

We have always believed that the question of the retrievability of the container is the nub of the issue.

We believe this because of two reasons. Firstly, it was this decision that has effectively suspended the rescue operation, and, left that container underground for 4 and a half years now!

Secondly, it makes no sense that it was deemed irretrievable when prospective bidders are making it the first deliverable in their bids.

We faced what we considered to be efforts to prevent our access to these documents, including citing that the documents were sub-judice, with the same NPA, that 3 years later, were unaware of the criminal charges laid!

Our legal teams eventually obtained the documents on the 20th August 2020. After extensive analysis of these documents, we have made the following discovery.

The report and its documentation, despite being the basis of the conclusion that the container is irretrievable, has very little to do with retrievability. It focusses on the events leading to the collapse of the mine in great detail.

The only reference to the irretrievability of the container is located in the findings of the report. No evidence or documents exist in the 500-page report or its annexures, to substantiate this finding. Despite claims of the existence of a report by rock and engineering specialists, no mention is made of such a report or any of its findings.

For all intents and purposes – it does not exist!

What this means, is that the decision to deem the container irretrievable, while no doubt based on something, was not based on a professional assessment of the mine!

What this means, is that the costs of retrieving the container, which have been bandied around, have been based on propaganda to support the case that retrieval is impossible!

What it means, is that these former miners, their families, members of the media, our parliament and the South African people, have been subjected to one of the most elaborate lies in the history of our nation!

I am here today, alongside these brave South Africans, to announce that, our legal teams, will now begin the work of implementing a legal strategy, that will force our government, to retrieve that container!

I am assured that in the first half of next year, we will be in court!

When that day comes, what I can tell you is this: We will achieve a court order instructing the DMRE, to retrieve that container!

We will argue the need for a court to find the conduct of DMRE, to be reprehensible, and to compel the Department, to identify those responsible for the perpetration of this lie.

We will be writing to the Parliamentary Standing Portfolio Committee on Minerals and Energy, to explain the dishonesty of the DMRE, in their accounting for this matter in Parliament.

I have already written to the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Ms Shamila Batohi, and requested her to provide an understanding of progress towards a criminal prosecution.

I would like to take this opportunity to make a few and very important statements.

Firstly, and most importantly, I would like to apologise to the former miners and families at Lily Mine, for what they have endured, and, for how our government has deceived them.

Secondly, I would like to convey to our government, my absolute refusal to back down on this matter!

If you are counting on me, breaking a promise to the people of Lily Mine, or losing interest in this matter, you are mistaken, because, I will not stop until they get justice.

Finally, to the people of South Africa: You may not understand the plight of miners, or regard this mine to be in the far-flung reaches of Mpumalanga. But, I need to assure you that the plight of these brave South Africans, matters!

Today it is them, fighting against their government for their most basic of constitutional rights, to justice, and dignity! But, tomorrow, it may be you, a member of your family, or mine, for that matter!

The only way we will ever become the nation that we were meant to be, is when South Africans unite behind their fellow countrymen, and women, and when, they are being mistreated by their government.

I ask you, in fact, I plead with you, to join me in fighting for the people of Lily Mine. To afford them the dignity, of retrieving that container.

To afford their loved ones a proper burial, and, to ensure that those responsible for this tragedy, account for what they have done!