PRETORIA — Pinned under a huge rock, 17-year-old Themba Mlambo looked around the dark mineshaft — and what he saw terrified him.
Shards of light gleamed out from a pile of rocks under which five illegal miners lay buried. The glow and slender rays were from their headlamps, but there was no movement or sound.
Mlambo knew they were dead, crushed in a rockfall.
The Zimbabwean teenager was one of the few illegal miners to survive the mishap at an unused mineshaft near Grootvlei Mine near Springs last Monday.
It is believed about 20 miners were killed, but the final figure may never be known.
Nobody knows how many went down the shaft and the victims are likely to remain entombed where they fell, after it was decided it was too dangerous for rescue workers to retrieve the bodies.
Earlier this year, Mlambo had left his carpentry job for Shaft 13 in the hope of a quick buck.
“I would always see other guys boasting about the money they made there. They would say they made between R5 000 and R7 000 in two days,” he said as he lay on his hospital bed.
On his first day in the mine, last month, Mlambo made R600.
The shaft they entered had been sealed shut, but he said “grenades” were used to blast it open.
Last Monday was only Mlambo’s second time underground.
He arrived at around midday and joined a group of about 30 people equipped with food, tools, hammers, batteries for torches and equipment needed to extract gold from ore.
Some were younger than him, said Mlambo — as young as 14.
They had been underground for about four hours when a scream echoed down the dark shaft:
“Rocks are falling, rocks are falling!”
Then Mlambo heard rocks tumbling down around him.
“The top of the mine was vibrating.
“Suddenly everyone started to run, screaming and being hit by rocks.
I was running when I tripped and fell. Then a rock hit me on my back, it was so big that I could not stand up, I was trapped under it.”
Around him lay dead miners.
“I was saddened by what I saw. Some were from Zimbabwe.”
Two fellow illegal miners, also rushing to escape the rockfall, came across Mlambo and pulled him from under the rock and carried him to safety outside.
Normally, when miners returned to the surface, people would be waiting at the entrance to buy the gold.
“All they want is the gold, and they never even go down the shaft.
“However, when they heard people had died underground, they left,” said a shaken Mlambo, who no longer wants anything to do with illegal mining.
“If I had made money I would have sent it home, but now I am too scared. This is not right. After this I will go back to carpentry.”
Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, said illegal mining was fuelled by big syndicates who were in cahoots with some mine managers.