A man stands quietly staring at the ground, his hands clasped tightly, grief written across his face. His cousin leans against him. She softly cries, calling for her brothers.
“What do I do? What do I tell my mother? My four brothers are gone. How do I tell her all her sons are dead? Just like that, it’s only me,” whispers Charlotte Mapuya as her cousin holds her tightly.
Mapuya’s four brothers – 28-year-old twins and their siblings aged 24 and 22 – were killed instantly along with more than 40 other zama zamas (illegal miners) in a suspected methane gas explosion 3km underground in a decommissioned Harmony Gold mine in Welkom, Free State.
The force of last Thursday’s explosion was felt across the tiny mining town – the epicentre of South Africa’s gold mine basin.
It shook buildings, rattled windows and, said residents, made their furniture move. Many, however, paid no attention: it was just the zama zamas.
Unbeknown to most, dozens were instantly vaporised or burnt beyond recognition. Some of those whose bodies have been found so far were identified by name tags on their bodies under clear sticky tape – a practice zama zamas have adopted to aid identification in the event of accidents.
For days mine authorities and the police have been pulling up bodies through the mine’s Eland shaft, which is synonymous with illegal miners and death.
“We call it the zama graveyard,” says a Welkom forensic services officer.
“Every week we collect bodies. The miners send a signal and we go out to collect the bodies. Most are beyond recognition. That’s from the heat, crush injuries from rock falls or diseases.”
For six months Mapuya’s brothers – whom she refuses to name – had worked underground for an illegal gold mining syndicate.
The Johannesburg brothers were brought into the syndicate by friends whom they had seen make huge amounts of money.
“I was scared for them. We all were. We didn’t want them to go, but they have families and small children.”
Mapuya’s cousin asked: “Wouldn’t you if you lost your job? Wouldn’t you if you knew your kids’ lives depended on you finding work?”
Mapuya said she had stayed in touch with her brothers through special social media groups that the miners run and through messages brought out by food and water couriers for the miners’ families.
“I live in Joburg so I didn’t hear from them often. The messages they did send were always happy ones. My heart was happy because I knew they were together.
“I wish I had known that this would be their last time because I would have told them all how much I loved them.”
A Zimbabwe national, who asked not to be identified, fought back tears moments after identifying his brother William Dube. “There’s nothing left of him. Everything was burnt -100% of him is gone.”
He said he last spoke to his brother three months ago.
“William told me he was scared. He was scared of the gas the most. He said you can’t smell it. You just feel tired and then you go to sleep.
“His wife begged him not to go underground. She was scared. She didn’t want him to go but he has two children – who are four years and six months old – to support.”
He said they wanted to know what had happened. “We can see there was an explosion. Some people say there was a fight with other zama zamas, others say they had made a fire to cook food.”
Mapuya’s cousin said: “There is so much fear here. The people who controlled our cousins, they are powerful. They are strong, they hire killers, gunmen who make sure that all the gold that is brought out is given to them.
“If you don’t, you get shot. Right there they shoot you at the mine shaft and throw your body down it. They tell you if you don’t work properly they will kill your family, and they will. They know where we live, where our children play. They are killers. Even me talking now is a risk.”
Free State provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Lebeoana Tsumane said since Monday they had been retrieving bodies from the shaft.
“We are using conventional and ‘unconventional’ investigation methods to get the bodies. We have established that the explosion occurred 13km away.
“That’s a long way to carry bodies and it takes time. The bodies are brought to the bottom of the shaft and we help bring them up.”
He said the recovery operation would continue for as long as there were still bodies underground.
Lauren Fourie, Harmony Gold spokesman, said: “The illegal miners that weren’t affected by the blast took the bodies of those who were killed to Eland shaft. They then alerted security and security alerted police.”
She said there was no way to confirm how many other bodies were still trapped underground.
“We rely on the information we receive from other illegal miners, who make it out safely,” she said.
– Additional reporting Jan Bornman