Five years on and still searching for justice: What really happened at the Lily mine?

23 Nov 2021
23 Nov 2021

At around 08:10 am on the 5th of February 2016, a tragedy befell Lily mine in Barberton. The crown pillar located between the roof of level three and four underground collapsed and caved into the old underground workings of the mine. As a result, the lamp room, which was part of the surface infrastructure also fell in and was buried under the rubble. Inside the lamp room were three individuals namely Mr. Solomon Nyirenda, Mrs. Pretty Nkambule and Mrs. Yvonne Mnisi. Seventy-six employees were also trapped underground and were subsequently rescued through a narrow ventilation shaft.

Five years since the incident, family members and members of the public are still seeking answers as to what exactly happened during this fateful morning. After numerous delays, the inquest into the incident that led to the collapse of the crown pillar and the disappearance of the three employees who were in the lamp room commenced on the 2nd of November 2021 at the Mbombela Magistrate Court. This inquest was initially scheduled for three weeks.

What has transpired to date?

When the incident happened, numerous rescue efforts were undertaken by the mine, the DMR to try and rescue the missing persons. These attempts had to be stopped as they proved to be dangerous due to the instability of the land around.

The employer undertook an investigation as mandated by section 11(5) of the Mine Health and Safety Act 29 of 1996 (MHSA), in which it concluded that the reasons for the failure of the crown pillar could not be established with precision due to the complexity of the crown pillar. The investigation by the employer was completed on the 31st of October 2016.

The report however mentioned some possible causes, including unpredictable and highly variable ore-body geology on strike and dip within a shear zone; low rock stress environment; unpredictable rock mass properties enhanced by highly variable nature of the ore body; effects of the groundwater in the backfill material within the pit during the early stages of mining; the original mine design and layout, and the result of these on subsequent mining operations and blast damage from mining operations over a long period of time since underground mining first commenced. In addition, the report indicated that illegal mining activities taking place on the upper levels, including in the vicinity of where the crown pillar collapsed and regional seismic activity along the Lily fault could have contributed to the collapse.

The investigation report highlighted that the crown pillar was never viewed as a potential risk by the rock engineers since 2008. In addition, the report places emphasis on the fact that no unsafe conditions or procedures were implemented or actioned by the mine management team, professional rock engineers or mining personnel that may have contributed to or caused the accident. More emphasis was placed on the fact that illegal mining activities cannot be overruled as a direct cause of the incident. The report thus found that the employer /owner of the mine, including the mine management were not liable for the incident.

The Department of Mineral Resources (“DMR”) also undertook its statutory obligations in terms of the MHSA. The DMR investigation commenced on the 28th of June 2016 and the final report was produced on the 12th of March 2018 in terms of section 72(1)(b) of the Mine Health and Safety Act 29 of 1996. The general recommendations from this investigation were that no buildings, railways, or any structure should be constructed above the rehabilitated land. It further recommended a comprehensive investigation and detailed risk assessment covering occupational hygiene, engineering, and rock geology to be undertaken. Notably, the report failed to establish the causes of the accident.

Current proceedings – the inquest

The current inquest seeks to investigate the circumstances that led to the incident at Lily Mine on the 5th of February 2016. The Inquest Act 58 of 1959 provides that in cases where a person dies or is alleged to have died of unnatural causes and where the public prosecutor does not institute criminal proceedings, an inquest must be held. This is the basis of the current inquest proceedings.

The Senior Magistrate Anne Marie van Der Merwe is being assisted by two Assessors with experience in mine management and rock engineering. The mine (MIMCO) is being represented by Beech and Veltman Attorneys while Richard Spoor Attorneys are representing the families of the trapped workers. Advocate Oosthuizen, the prosecutor is leading the evidence during the proceedings and is being assisted by two other prosecutors.

This inquest was initially scheduled to take place in the district of Barberton where the incident occurred in terms of section 6(a) of the Act. It was transferred to the Mbombela Magistrate Court after the recusal of the Magistrate in Barberton who was first assigned to the matter. The Senior Magistrate in Mbombela and the parties then requested the inquest to be held in Mbombela for a bigger venue and general convenience.

Currently, there are over 40 witnesses who have been subpoenaed to attend and to give evidence during the inquest. This is a heavy schedule which will continue into the fourth week of November. In addition, the 17th and 18th of January 2022 have also been set aside for other witnesses who are unable to testify this year.

Giving his evidence in court on the 3rd of November, Mr Mnisi, Yvonne Mnisi’s father said the family, including the children of Yvonne are still waiting for her to return home. The Magistrate decided to start with factual evidence followed by technical evidence relating to rock science, geology, and the crown pillar. Evidence relating to the design of the crown pillar and how the crown pillar may have been undermined; the records of the dewatering of the backfill will occupy a central role during the inquest.

Some of the expected findings from this inquest as stated by the Magistrate in her opening remarks include the recording of the identity of the deceased person; the cause or likely cause of death; the date of death and whether such death was caused by an act or omission involving or amounting to an offence on the part of a person.

Written by Godknows Mudimu (Candidate Attorney Richard Spoor Inc & Research Associate MLiA)