South Africa: Tears and Joy As Miners Return to the Surface After Hostage Drama

Police open kidnapping case after events at Gold One mine…

Police open kidnapping case after events at Gold One mine

“Oh, thank you God,” Julia* said as she raised her hands to the sky. She had just heard that her son-in-law, who had been underground for three nights at the Gold One mine in Springs, had phoned on a borrowed cellphone to say he was safe, on the surface and would see them soon.

Her son-in-law was one of about 500 miners being held hostage underground in a dispute between the mine and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). AMCU claimed to be the majority union, claiming 90% of the 1,850 miners as members. They are applying for a closed shop agreement which will make them the only union on the mine. This has apparently put them at odds with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and mine management.

Since Monday morning Julia, her daughter Eunice* and four-month-old Karabo* had waited, their car parked in the shade of a large eucalyptus tree close to the main entrance to the mine.

With Eunice were relatives of other miners who were held underground. They too waited under the eucalyptus tree.

The wife of a miner who wanted to be referred to only as Mrs Mofokeng, said she had woken at 5am on Monday to find that her husband had not returned from work. By 8am she was worried and phoned Eunice, to find that her husband hadn’t returned from work either. Wiith baby Karabo, and grandma Julia they drove to the mine entrance and waited.

“The company only told us yesterday what was happening. They sent an SMS at 1:30pm that said our loved ones were underground,” said Mrs Mofokeng. “They ended that SMS with “until further notice”.”

On Wednesday morning the hostages slowly began returning to the surface. First came a group of five miners, who had escaped their captives, according to National Mine Workers Union deputy general secretary Mpho Phakedi. He said the five had got access to one of the mine stopes. The stope is an incline that is used to bring heavy machinery into the mine. He said that the stope had been barricaded by the hostage takers with rocks, but the men had been able to slip through.

“Before they were stopped, another 136 people were able to escape,” he explained.

One of those who was able to escape was paramedic Thabiso Stimela, whose father Alfred had on Tuesday waited at one of the entrances to the mine in the hope that he would find news of his son. “I am just so happy that he is fine and at home now,” Alfred Stimela told GroundUp.

Then in the early afternoon the police launched their operation, with the assistance of the Proto team, who are trained to perform underground rescues.

Phakedi said the union had been briefed by mine management who told them that police had met with resistance, but there were no serious injuries.

Just after 1pm, the miners held underground began trickling up to the surface. From the other side of the fence, outside the mine, loved ones and colleagues watched and shouted greetings.

“The security got to us,” shouted one of the miners, who had just changed out of his mine overalls. As they arrived on the surface, each miner was given a medical check up.

Police said that four men, including a security officer, were taken to hospital for treatment. A total of 562 miners, including the security guard and paramedics were brought to the surface.

From statements gathered by those who were held, police said that detectives had identified about 15 hostage-takers underground.

“The police have seized sticks and screw drivers which were found in the lift by mine security”, according to a SAPS statement. “A case of kidnapping and assault will be registered for investigation.”

Outside the mine entrance, NUM leadership had a press briefing and called the operation a success.

“We are very happy that finally, these people are out,” said Phakedi. He said the union had not yet decided what legal action to take.

“The way forward is that those who are not well, they will be treated, and those who were taken hostage will take leave to recover. Once they are recovered, they will come back into the system.”

Included among the hostages were mine management, the union said.

In a statement the mine management expressed gratitude to all those involved in the operation that ensured the release of the miners.

AMCU was also claiming victory, late Wednesday afternoon. “I think it is a question of time, but we will be able to get some traction in this whole situation,” said AMCU general secretary Jeff Mphahlele.

On Wednesday afternoon the union held a vote which they claim was a majority for AMCU, that Mphahlele said would allow them to become the only union on the mine, through a closed shop agreement. But NUM claims that they still have a majority amongst the miners of Gold One Mine.

After the miners were given medical checkups they were placed into minibuses and driven out of the mine to their homes.