13 April 2024 | 08:36 PM

Savagery governs Wild West mine

Key Takeaways

Three months after his son Sonwabo Gcweka was found dead after allegedly being beaten at the Blyvooruitzicht gold mine, 70-year-old Simphiwe Mlanjeni’s hopes of finding the truth are fading.

Although police have insisted that “all the cases reported in and around the area are under investigation by the Carletonville police”, indications from Gcweka’s family, who visited the police station this week, are that there is in fact no investigation.

As he watched a cellphone video clip of his 39-year-old son being kicked and taunted while unidentified security personnel in bulletproof vests looked on, Mlanjeni let out a heavy sigh.

He told amaBhungane: “I accept my son was in the wrong but no one had the right to take his life. I want to know who did this; they must be brought to book. We have laws in this country … Why were the police not called in the first place?”

Gcweka’s death is emblematic of the descent of the West Rand’s once-prosperous gold mining areas into violent ungovernability.

The pickings of unsecured and sometimes abandoned shafts,such as those at Blyvoor, have spawned gangs of zama zamas – illegal miners – whose violent conflicts have spilled over into nearby communities. As police withdraw, saying they are powerless, mine owners and their security officials have taken the law into their own hands.

“We live in fear, there are deaths every day,” Mlanjeni said. “But what makes us more despondent is that the police seem to have given up the fight against crime.”

Brutal image

Last month amaBhungane obtained the eight-second clip of a longer video recording showing Gcweka and another man bloodied and cowering in a doorway. According to sources, the bodies of the two men were dumped in a dam at the mine.

Gcweka had once worked for Blyvoor, until he was arrested and spent time in jail. His father did not elaborate on the charges. Although the identity of the second man in the video is known to amaBhungane, we were unable to trace his family, but it is understood he arrived at the Blyvoor Shaft 5 hostel from Lesotho in early December last year.

Mlanjeni said he recognised his son in the video clip immediately. “I saw the body of a young guy and I said, this is Gcweka. Then I saw his face. It was definitely him,” he said.

What broke his heart, Mlanjeni said, was the manner of his son’s death. “Seeing him being tortured like that haunts me every night … I wish they had shot him. Every time I close my eyes I imagine him begging for his life and asking for forgiveness, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.”

He said Sonwabo had lost his way but was trying to rebuild his life through a part-time engineering course at an FET college.

“My son was mischievous but he loved people. Yes, when he was young, [he] got involved with the wrong crowd and got arrested. He was no angel. But over the last few years I saw a change in him. He was becoming a real man.”

Mine a killing field

AmaBhungane received the video after it began investigating claims of the torture, beating and possible execution of illegal miners at Blyvoor by private security guards employed by Goldrich Holdings. Several people contracted by Goldrich last year said that the mine had become a “war zone” and that more than 40 people – mostly zama zamas ­– had been killed since December.

At the same time, Goldrich Holdings took over the mine’s operations after its bid was accepted by Blyvoor’s provisional joint liquidators. (See “Echoes of Pamodzi”.)

Following the emergence of the video clip, amaBhungane set out to identify the two men and establish where they came from. It found that two bodies at the state mortuary in Roodepoort appeared to match the description of the men shown in the video enduring a vicious assault.

According to the mortuary, which listed the cause of death as assault, the two men died of injuries to the chest and head.

The brief police report noted that “the deceased were found in a pool of water with possible head injuries”, adding that they died at about 9.45am on December 31 last year at the Blyvoor Gold plant.

The report matches Mlanjeni’s attempts to track down his son after he received a call alleging that Gcweka had been caught stealing corrugated iron sheets at Blyvoor and was beaten by security guards.

“I received a call on December 30 that my son was being beaten up by security guards. I was in the Eastern Cape and there was nothing I could do, so the next day I called my cousin to check at the plant,” Mlanjeni said.

“I told him my son was in trouble and there are rumours that people who were assaulted were dead.”

Search for the truth begins

Gcweka’s cousin, an ex-miner who identified himself only as Welcome, said that he had asked security guards at the entrance to the mine about the incident. “I was told that two people were caught stealing zinc [corrugated iron] sheets, apparently for shacks, but that the security released them.”

Another relative, Simphiwe Mdutyuwa, was sent to the Carletonville police station on the night of December 31 to check whether Sonwabo had been arrested.

On January 2, Welcome and Mdutyuwa identified Gcweka’s body at the mortuary. This week Mdutyuwa went to the police station, where he was told no case had been opened. Mlanjeni said police have not yet approached him.

Police spokesperson Neville Malila said that “all the cases reported in and around the area are under investigation by the Carletonville police. Most of the suspects are unknown.” –Additional reporting by Tileni and Monghudi and Justice Kevahematui

Echoes of Pamodzi

Since August last year, the Blyvooruitzicht gold mine has been in flux. Forced into provisional liquidation, the mine was placed under the control of Goldrich Holdings, whose owners were directly involved in the calamitous degeneration of two insolvent Pamodzi Gold mines in 2009 and 2010.

Thulani Ngubane, a former Aurora Empowerment Systems director, and Fazel Bhana, implicated by a liquidation inquiry into the damage caused to the Pamodzi mines while under Aurora’s control, are both involved with Goldrich Holdings and its attempt to buy Blyvoor from the liquidators.

Goldrich signed an agreement to buy the bankrupt mine in December. But allegations of rampant asset-stripping, similar to what occurred under Aurora, has prompted Blyvoor liquidators to try to regain control of the mine.

The violent death of Sonwabo Gcweka, allegedly at the hands of security officials working for Goldrich, closely resembles the murders of illegal miners at the Pamodzi gold mines, allegedly by Aurora’s security.

The two sides are now embroiled in a legal battle, while the conditions at the mine deteriorate pending an outcome.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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