Thaba-Tseka village thrown into mourning

THABA-TSEKA – The people of Ha-Noko village in Thaba-Tseka are grieving.

Nine men from the village were among the 86 people who perished in the illegal mining disaster in Welkom, South Africa.

It will take a long time for the villagers to come to terms with the loss.

When 21-year-old Motebang Khopholi left Ha-Noko to join illegal gold mining in Welkom, his mother, ’Mamotebang, protested.

And when relatives told her that her son was among the illegal miners who had died in the Welkom mining disaster she refused to believe it. 

She just could not believe that her dear son was gone.  

Khopholi left Lesotho on January 27 this year to join 30 men from his village who had gone to seek a fortune in the abandoned mines in South Africa.

They call it zama-zama, which means let’s try.

Most of the men who left this village are aged between 20 and 35 years. Khopholi never came back.

Instead what came back was a message that he was one of the 38 Basotho men who had died in the mining disaster that claimed the lives of 86 miners mostly from Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

“I wish I had fought harder against his decision to join the zama-zama,” ’Mamotebang said when the Lesotho Times visited the village last Saturday.

A fire broke out at Eland shaft one of Harmony Gold Mine’s abandoned mines in Welkom where the miners were operating.

At the time of going to print, 86 bodies of illegal miners had been found and were displayed in the Welkom government mortuary for identification.

Experts are not ruling out the possibility of the death toll rising.

The fire started on May 18 and experts suspect that most of the mines died after suffocating and inhaling poisonous gasses.

Harmony Mine secretary, Marian Van der Walt told the Lesotho Times in an interview that 299 mineworkers who were suspected to have helped the illegal miners to gain access to the mine had been arrested.

Life will never be the same for this tinny rocky village nestled in the mountains in Thaba-Tseka. 

Many here have lost fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews.

The men who died in Welkom were sons to others but sons-in-law to others.

They were sons to others and fathers to others.

When the Lesotho Times crew visited the village on Saturday last week the mood was sombre.

To the people, every car that comes to the village might as well be bringing more heart-wrecking news from Welkom. About 30 men from this village are involved in the zama-zama.

While they mourn the nine, deep down in their hearts they know their grieving might not be over yet.

Very few of the men have yet made contact with their families to confirm that calamity did not befell them when the disaster struck.

Many families fear for the worst.

They know that today they might be mourning a cousin but tomorrow they might be mourning a father or a son.

’Mamotebang could not stop her tears as she wailed uncontrollably.

“My child, why have you disappointed me? Why did you have to die like this, Motebang?

“You could have gone to school but you did not. Why did you choose to go to the mines?” 

“Why did this happen to me?”

They are rhetoric questions asked out of pain in sorrow.

At the time, Motebang’s lifeless body was in a mortuary somewhere in Welkom.

Khopholi’s two cousins, Khethang and Kabelo, who are brothers also perished in the tragedy which is now officially the biggest illegal mining disaster in South Africa. 

The shaft where the disaster happened is 1 400m deep.

Kabelo was a teacher at a local primary school in the area for six years before he quit to join illegal mining.

It’s not hard to see why young men like Kabelo, Khethang and Khopholi were enticed to join the business.

Homesteads of illegal miners in Ha-Noko are distinguished by their big concrete brick houses.

New cars are parked in front of some of the houses.

Ask the little boys in the village what they want to do when they grow up they will tell you, “Zama-Zama” with confidence.

But it’s a very risky business as the disaster has shown.

The men work in dark tunnels that are very hot and filled with dangerous mine gasses. In most cases they don’t have protective clothes.

The Khopholi family said they did not have money to bring their sons home for burial.  

Chief Molefi Noko said he was afraid that his son might be among the dead.

Noko said his son had not called or written since he left a few months ago.

“There is no peace in my house and we fear the worst,” Noko said.

Noko said his wife was inconsolable at the thought that their son could have died.

“She is crying as if we have already received news of his death.

“She has been crying since we heard the news that the men who went to South Africa to dig gold illegally had died.”

“Our daughter fainted when she heard the news.”

Although it is yet to be confirmed indications are that most of the Basotho men who died are from Thaba-Tseka district.

Seven of the 26 who died were buried in Ha-Seshote in the same district on Tuesday this week.

According to Harmony Mine’s Van der Walt the illegal miners enter by bribing “corrupt workers who also supplied them with food and other necessary needs”.

Van der Walt said the illegal miners paid between R1 500 and R2 000 to the security guards to enter the shafts.

Illegal mining has been happening in South Africa since the late 1990s. 

The miners often spend up to three months underground subjecting themselves to extremely dangerous circumstances.

It’s a well co-ordinated operation. Food is smuggled underground by real mine workers.

A mine worker who spoke to Lesotho Times on condition of anonymity said he had made a fortune two years ago by selling food to the illegal miners underground. 

He said he was part of a syndicate that supplied food to the illegal miners.

“At the time a loaf of bread was M40 underground whilst a cigarette was M10,” he said.

“We made a lot of money through these guys. Now I hear that bread can cost as much as R70.”

He said he sold food to illegal miners through a contact person who co-ordinated unlawful mining.

When food is scarce sellers auction the food to the illegal miners.

Apart from the dangers underground the miners also face the risk of being arrested. 

 “Many of them are penniless when they are arrested and they cannot even lead the police to their bosses. In most cases the arrests take place when these illegal miners are about to be paid.”

When some of them die on duty their bodies are hauled to areas where legal miners can see them.

“They put a name tag on the dead so that those legal miners can contact his relatives.”

A Lesotho government labour official, Sethunya Koqo who is based in Welkom said the government had been informed about the number of Lesotho nationals that have died in the incident.

In a statement on June 1 Harmony said it would not deploy its own employees on underground searches of dead bodies because “the abandoned mining areas where the criminal miners have been active are extremely dangerous.”

Meanwhile, the South African Mining Minister Susan Shabangu expressed her condolences on Monday last week following the miners’ deaths.

“I am saddened by the deaths of miners who perished whilst they were allegedly involved in illegal mining of an abandoned mine,” Shabangu said in a statement.

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