Page last updated at 05:29 GMT, Saturday, 6 June 2009 06:29 UK

Horror of South African miners' deaths

By Mpho Lakaje
BBC News, Free State

Relatives of missing miners
Relatives of missing miners wait to identify their bodies at a mortuary

Around a mortuary in Thabong, in South Africa's Free State Province, the families of illegal miners, missing underground, wait to see if they can identify their relatives' bodies.

They cover their faces to stop the thick stench of decomposing body parts from overwhelming them.

The authorities call out names of identified men so their relatives, some had come from Mozambique or Lesotho, could take their bodies home.

Other relatives couldn't find their husbands, brothers or fathers and they left looking for other mortuaries where their bodies may be.

Illegal gold

The bodies of 76 illegal miners were found in the shafts of a disused gold mine over the past week.

The Eland shaft, owned by Harmony Gold, has been out of use for years - closed down for being too dangerous and unprofitable.

Entrance to the disused mine shaft
Harmony stopped using the mine shaft, saying it was too dangerous

But illegal miners have been breaking into the shaft and lowering themselves down to the tunnels below.

They walk for kilometres, staying underground for weeks in the search for illegal gold.

"People come here looking for jobs," said one 62-year-old illegal miner, who did not want to be identified.

In the beginning this was not taken seriously because when we arrested these guys, they were only charged with trespass
Ambrose Khuzwayo
Harmony Gold spokesman

"They are tricked by crime syndicates to believing that they will be employed and work in mines."

"They are then taken to the shafts illegally without going through any medical assessment. When they are underground, they form groups. Some cook for the miners while others are deployed to search for gold."

Dead underground

Some of the miners had died in a fire that broke out on 18 May. Others had suffocated because of dangerous gasses seeping out of the rocks underground, authorities said.

They were discovered after an anonymous tip-off was rung in to police, probably from another illegal miner.

World's3rd largest producer
Dropped from 1st in 2008
Produced 220 tonnes in 2008
Global recession has caused a slump in the demand for gold
50,000 jobs expected to be lost across mining industry
No figures exist on how much gold is illegally mined

Labour unions have blamed the mining companies for letting security slip, and allowing miners to get into the shafts.

"The blame should lie squarely on the shoulders of Harmony Gold," said National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka.

"It is out of order that people from outside can get access to internal operations. If [Harmony Gold] are serious about security in general, it won't allow the mine to become a death trap."

Harmony Gold say their security guards are bribed to allow illegal miners in, and they have now intensified security and 100 employees who colluded with illegal mining syndicates have been arrested.

But until now the police and the prosecutors have not been taking it seriously enough, a spokesman for the company said.

"In the beginning this was not taken seriously because when we arrested these guys, they were only charged with trespass," said Ambrose Khuzwayo.

"They would go to the police station and the next day they are free. They then go back underground."

The police say they suspect that international criminal syndicates are involved in the process.

Easy pickings?

The Institute for Security Studies, a South African think-tank, says that gold is an easy commodity for illegal mining syndicates to get hold of and sell.

While the mining industry suffers in South Africa during the global recession, criminals can still get rich on the bits companies leave behind.

There is a long history of illegal mining in South Africa, the world's third largest gold producer.

And accidents are frequent.

People looking for jobs are not dissuaded by the danger.

Earlier this year 20 miners were also killed at another mine.

At the mortuary in Thabong, men who left their families to search for jobs are lying lifelessly - leaving behind pain and a heavy burden for their relatives and the government.

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