In Van Dyksdrif, a tavern is teeming with Sesotho-speaking men. It is Thursday, early in the afternoon, and they are drinking like it is already the weekend. Music is blaring.
This is a squatter camp near the R544 road, about 40km outside Middelburg in Mpumalanga, and it is surrounded by coal mines.
Cars with Lesotho registration numbers stop by the tavern.
“These Basothos,” says a South African man who works in one of the mines, “are experts in cable theft.”
Van Dyksdrif is believed to be a haven for copper cable thieves and owes its existence to the close-knit community of Lesotho nationals.
“I can tell you that no one can be part of them. They operate together. Those sticks that they carry come from their country and if they hit you, you’ll never recover because the stick has strong muti,” the mine worker says.
About 30km east of Van Dyksdrif stands Gloria Mine. Formerly owned by the Gupta family, this is where the squatter camp’s residents are alleged to have caused an underground explosion this week that left six people dead after they cut off the power that kept the fans running.
There has been no ventilation, resulting in the accumulation of methane gas.
Community members have given police 22 names of people unaccounted for this week.
Three weeks ago, thieves plunged the mine into darkness by cutting overhead power lines, stripping 10 multi-volt amp transformers and destroying a substation – all worth about R100 million – to steal copper cables.
Copper theft affects Eskom, Transnet, factories and mines, and is believed to cost the economy about R5 billion a year, according to Combined Private Investigations, a company that specialises in intelligence operations involving copper theft crimes.
The Van Dyksdrif syndicate’s expertise and violence is legendary among Gloria Mine’s management.
The mine’s business rescue representative, Mike Elliot, said 20 of Van Dyksdrif’s community members, armed with sticks and pangas, forced their way into the shaft on Tuesday, following news that the mine workers were trapped underground.
“They arrived en masse and forced their way past the police and security guards into the mine shaft. They got two of the guys out – one had passed on and the other one passed away in hospital,” Elliot said.
“These guys are absolute professionals,” he said, adding that they brazenly told mine management that “we work in shifts at your mine”.
“They shoot at police and shoot at our security guards,” said Elliot.
“Last week, we brought in dogs and they shot them.”
Gloria Mine’s security manager, George Austin, spoke of many encounters with the armed cable thieves.
“Two years ago during Christmas holidays,” said Austin, “12 came out from underground. They threw sticks and other objects at our guards and ran back to the mine. Our guys were carrying only paintball guns.”
Last Friday morning, the copper thieves disrupted management’s attempts to restore power to the mine. Its shaft cannot be accessed until the fans are working again because of the proliferation of methane gas.
Elliot said electric poles, cables and a transformer had been delivered, but when the repair work started, a mob attacked the workers.
“The rescue mission cannot continue. These people have demands. They were threatening to kill the workers who were restoring the electricity,” he said.
Mpumalanga police spokesperson Brigadier Leonard Hlathi said an inquest docket had been opened.
He added that a probe into tampering with infrastructure would begin once witnesses came forward.
Gloria Mine has been under business rescue since banks cut ties with the controversial Gupta family last year.
More than 2 000 workers at Gloria and its sister mine, Optimum Coal, have not been paid. Since September, they have been on special leave while buyers are being sought.
Elliot could not say how much the mine was being sold for and how much it owed creditors. However, he added, it had enough coal reserves to remain in operation for the next 35 years.
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