A SILENT, deadly war is being waged kilometres underground in mines that have become battlegrounds between rival unions.
As tensions intensify above ground in the stand-off in North West between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, and the National Union of Mineworkers, the body count and injury toll below ground are rising. Police are investigating five suspicious deaths on mines in North West and Limpopo.
In February, four such deaths were reported to the police, resulting in detectives from the national forensic laboratory spending days underground.
Those deaths followed the rape and murder of Binkie Mosiana, 27, who was found underground at Amplats’ Khomani mine last year.
Sources in companies that provide security services to the mines say that in the past two months at least three other deaths have occurred under questionable circumstances.
The deaths – which have all been labelled “industrial accidents” – are believed to be linked to inter-union rivalry, and possibly to the massacre by police of 34 striking miners at Marikana on August 16. The police shootings, which are being investigated by the Farlam Commission of Inquiry, followed the killings of 10 people on or around the mine.
The Marikana violence has been blamed on a membership war between the NUM and Amcu, which has ousted the NUM to become the majority union at Lonmin and other mines.
Amcu brought operations at Lonmin’s Marikana operations to a halt yesterday, demanding that the NUM offices at the mine be shut. The union called on the police to find and confiscate weapons stashed underground.
On Saturday, Mawethu Joseph Steven, Amcu’s North West organiser, was shot and killed in a tavern near Rustenburg. On Sunday, two brothers, one of whom was believed to be a NUM member, were killed in their shack in Nkaneng near the Marikana mine. The killings are believed to have led to yesterday’s wildcat strike.
Claims have been made that “hit squads” are planning attacks at several Free State gold mines.
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa last night said that at least 10 “non-miners” had been smuggled into hostels at several Orkney gold mines.
“These men have been tasked with eliminating our branch members. We know they have brought guns with them, which we believe they are stashing underground.”
A forensic investigator said in February that two NUM members had been killed in suspicious circumstances in what were said to have been industrial accidents.
“One miner allegedly died when a ventilation pipe fell on him while another was hit by a runaway train. Yet their injuries were not consistent with the cause of death. There were clear signs of assault … yet when we examined documents on the deaths they were listed as ‘occupational deaths’,” the investigator said.
A Lonmin miner, who declined to reveal his union affiliation, said things were so bad that, when they worked underground, at least two miners were put on “guard duty”.
“We constantly find weapons and take our own to protect ourselves. If we don’t, we die.”
Mxhasi Sithethi, NUM’s Rustenburg coordinator, said his union’s members worked in fear.
“The mines, especially around Thabazimbi and Northam, are particularly bad when it comes to assaults, intimidation and deaths. On a daily basis we receive reports of attacks. Our members work looking over their shoulders. There are so many weapons underground.”
Limpopo police spokesman Colonel Ronel Otto confirmed that several deaths underground at mines were being investigated.
North West police spokesman Brigadier Thulani Ngubane confirmed the investigation into Mosiana’s rape and murder.
Amplats and Anglogold spokesman Mpumi Sithole said they had received no reports of violence underground. Lonmin spokesman Sue Vey failed to respond to questions by the time of going to press.