The heroes of Shaft 3

Mid-April 2010: staff of Shaft 3 at the Grootvlei gold mine outside Springs are joking about walking off the job. Most of the 30-odd workers have not been paid since January. For weeks now, senior management haven’t given them a straight answer about money or equipment – or even about whether or not the mine should still be operating.

Polluted water flowing into the Blesbokspruit

The equipment is old and keeps failing. Things are getting unsafe underground. Pipe explosions in the main shaft have ripped 200kg chunks of rock out of the walls – mercifully while no-one was around.

Anger threatens to overwhelm the normally calm demeanour of one of them. “I’m not going to just abandon the shaft suddenly without thinking, unless it gets too much and I strip my moer”, he says, echoing the feelings of his workmates.

The directors of Aurora Empowerment Systems, which operates Grootvlei, have told many lies at press conferences. These meetings are held at a safe distance from the mine, as the directors’ shiny new Mercedes-Benzs and high-end SUVs, some purchased in February, are no longer welcome in the main office parking lot, where angry, hungry workers regularly gather to protest.

Shaft 3’s men have not joined the strike embarked on by the majority of Grootvlei’s 2,000-odd workers to protest their unpaid salaries – though some have had cars and houses repossessed since their pay stopped coming through.

Why are they still on the job? Because on the operations of Shaft 3 depends the future of the whole East Rand – Brakpan, Nigel, Springs, the surrounding farms and remaining mines, the Marievale wetland and its world-famous birdlife, the whole sorry lot. The crew of Shaft 3 know it: theirs is the last pumpshaft still in operation on the Far East Rand.

Springs, east of Johannesburg, got its name from the many springs of pure, abundant water that European settlers found in the area. Good for farming. The water welled up from the massive dolomitic formations that are a feature of the Witwatersrand (“Ridge of clear waters”) – the giant underground rock sponges that were once filled with streams and caverns, constantly topped up by seeping rainwaters.

But the springs stopped flowing from the 1880s onward, when mining came to the area. As miners bored and blasted through the water-filled dolomites, their shafts constantly filled with water, and mining companies began installing pumping stations underground to suck the rock aquifers dry, pumping the water into rivers on the surface, and depriving the natural springs of their underground source. As the mines went deeper they pumped from deeper down. By 1955 24 mines had shafts deep into the Far East Rand Basin (impermeable rock formations deep under Brakpan and Springs form a giant “basin which isolates the underground waters in it from other “basins” underlying the rest of the Witwatersrand).

The number of mines – and underground pumping stations – on the East Rand has dropped steadily since the ’50s. Today, only one station is still running in all of the Far East Rand Basin, 775 metres down Grootvlei’s Shaft 3.

If Shaft 3’s pumps stop, the water level in the basin will rise at an average rate of 90cm a day, through the mine shafts and underground watercourses, into the now-dry dolomitic aquifers. Just over two years after that, huge volumes of water will begin flowing from old springs and mine shaft openings all over the East Rand. (The first “decant point” is predicted to be beneath an old taxi rank in Nigel.)

Besides the fact that it will signal the end of mining in the area, the “rewatering” of the Far East Rand Basin will bring catastrophe: this time it won’t be pure “white” water gushing from boreholes and springs, it’ll be toxic Acid Mine Drainage (the dreaded AMD) – with devastating consequences for anyone or any operation that depends on clean water, across the densely populated East Rand or anywhere downstream from there.

In August last year nose118 reported that AMD is threatening the West Rand, where high concentrations of uranium are contaminating aquifers and toxic water is beginning to seep to the surface near Randfontein. The AMD forming in the Far East Rand Basin is less radioactive, but there’s more of it.

Shaft 3’s massive underground pumps push up about 80 to 90 megalitres a day during the dry winter, but have been stretched to 108 megalitres a day to cope with the massive water ingress during the extraordinarily rainy summer of 2009/2010. (A megalitre is a million litres, roughly a third of the volume of an Olympic swimming pool.) The main contaminants in the AMD that Grootvlei pumps are manganese and iron compounds, which give a muddy reddish colour.

By the early 1990s, government, made aware of the environmental threat, had forced Grootvlei to build a treatment plant to remove the iron, and some other toxic metals, from the water being pumped from the mine. Oxygen and lime are added to the AMD as it exits the top of the shaft, to make it less acidic and speed up certain desirable chemical reactions. After mixing in an aeration tank, a flocculant is added to induce the metals and metal salts to settle as a reddish sludge in large clarifying tanks.

The water, now clear, but still slightly contaminated, is then channelled into the reed-choked Blesbokspruit, just upstream of the world-reknowned Marievale Bird Sanctuary, listed under the Ramsar convention as a globally important wetland. The Blesbokspruit ultimately flows into the economically vital Vaal River.

Striking workers at Grootvlei Mine

Grootvlei mine’s Water Use Licence stipulates that the mine must reduce iron concentration in the AMD it pumps to 1 part per million (ppm) before discharging it. (It’s normally 200ppm or higher when it exits the shaft.) Aurora Empowerment System’s directors can be jailed in terms of the Water Act, according to Water Affairs officials, should they allow contaminated water to enter a river. It would be interesting to see action taken on that one: Noseweek has established from various sources that Shaft 3’s water treatment systems were not cleaning the water for a week in January, two weeks in February, for all but seven days of March and from 1 to 20 April (when this story went to press).

Contaminated water has been passing though the treatment plant without having lime and flocculant added, and, in the latter part of this period, without being aerated. At an average rate of over 100 megalitres per day, already over 5,000 megalitres of heavily contaminated water have been drawn from Shaft 3 and diverted into one of the country’s most important wetlands – almost 2000 Olympic swimming pools since the beginning of the year. Each day now another 100 megalitres leaves the shaft, day after day.

Why has this happened? The electricity to run Shaft 3’s mega-pumps costs about R3.5m per month, the lime another R1.5m. With salaries and extras, it costs a total of R5.5m per month to run Shaft 3 and its water treatment works. Since the AMD pumped at Shaft 3 flows in from all over the Far East Rand Basin, government subsidises Shaft 3’s operations by R3m to R5m per month (different sources report different amounts). But Aurora spokesperson Thulane Ngubane claims that for some time now the subsidy has not been forthcoming from the state.

Officials in the Department of Minerals and Energy say they have been holding on to it because Aurora has given them three different account numbers – they’re not sure which one to use. Nor do they know where the money is actually going.

What is the government doing about this pollution disaster? Very little; extremely late. Senior officials from Minerals and Energy have visited the non-operational treatment plant, tut-tutted, and disappeared without taking any discernible action.

The Blue Scorpions, South Africa’s water police, have taken two water samples, the full results of which they’ve not released. (Maybe the lab isn’t operational either? – Ed.) In mid-April the mine was served with a “Section 53” directive, which will force them to explain to Water Affairs why they have not been treating the water; although a step forward, it doesn’t force the mine to actually start treating the stuff again.

And Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica – ex minister of Minerals and Energy – told ID MP Lance Greyling that she’d never heard of Grootvlei mine, did not know where it was and had no knowledge of its role in water pollution management.

Aurora’s chief strategist for mergers and acqusitions, Fazel Bhana, has claimed that the treatment plant was out of action “for only two days in April”. And that, he further claimed, was only because striking miners blocked the entrance to Shaft 3, prevented a lime truck from entering.

Bhana is notorious among journalists and union officials for the stream of easily exposed untruths that stream from his keyboard and lips. Noseweek has monitored the situation at the mine for weeks and can confirm that striking miners have not come within a kilometre of the gates of the treatment plant.

It’s hard not to conclude that the reason Aurora’s directors have escaped serious repercussions, while presiding over one of the country’s more serious water pollution and labour crises, is their political connections: the chair of the Aurora board is 26-year-old Zondwa Gaddafi Mandela, Nelson’s less-talented grandson, and eldest son of Zindzi.

Khulubuse Zuma, President Zuma’s nephew (who styles himself as “son” to the Big Man – he was regularly present at Zuma’s rape trial, to give support) is an executive director. The president’s wheeler-dealer lawyer, Michael Hulley, is listed as non-executive director.

Along with his father and co-Aurora advisor, Solly Bhana, Fazel Bhana is alleged to have been involved in serious financial crime over the last decade, including massive tax evasion and insider trading on the JSE. Khulu Zuma told the media he asked the Bhanas to come on board because of their experience.

Rounding out the core team is Basheer Moosa, a financial manager who began arriving at the mine in February in a brand new Mercedes worth almost R2m, just as the company announced it had no money to pay workers.

Aurora Empowerment Systems took over the running of Grootvlei mine in October 2009 in terms of a deal with the liquidators of Pamodzi Gold East Rand. Aurora persuaded the liquidators to allow them to begin operating the mine immediately, rather than leaving it in “care and maintenance” (i.e. mothballed, with only basic functions running) so that it could generate revenue instead of being a liability to the liquidators. Full ownership and all relevant licences were meant to be transferred to them between January and April this year.

Of the five joint provisional liquidators of Pamodzi Gold East Rand, Enver Motala (see noses113, &126), took the lead in promoting Aurora’s bid over others, primarily on the basis of their “good names”, the R390m they were offering for Pamodzi East Rand and their promise to retain all workers and assume the environmental liabilities of the mine. Much of Aurora’s capital was to come from Malaysia. (It didn’t. When the Malaysians learned something about their new partners’ business practices, they wisely decided to hang on to their cash. – Ed.)

Aurora was to compile monthly reports to the liquidators, detailing the amount of gold mined and sold, as well as all financial flows. They were also to start paying back the R205m Pamodzi owes the Bayerische Hypo und Vereins Bank AG (HVB), with an almost immediate payment of R15m, the balance of R190m to follow on transfer of ownership and licenses.

According to well-placed sources, Aurora has paid only just short of R10m for Pamodzi’s East Rand assets. They’ve failed to submit monthly progress reports, failed to pay HVB, failed to pay workers for months, failed to pay Eskom, Rand Water, SARS, Protea Coin Security, Fraser Alexander (who maintain the mine’s waste dumps), Equity (the hostel caterer) and a host of smaller suppliers for everything from pumps to vehicles. The state of the mine’s hostels is worse than during the apartheid era – raw waste water runs past rooms that each house eight men, with shattered windows and leaking roofs. General miners are paid a mere R1,350 per month.

Miners told noseweek that two of their colleagues died underground this year (a shift boss and his “picannin”) after they were overcome by mine gas. Their gas-sensing equipment failed due to lack of maintenance.

Millions deducted from workers’ salaries for unemployment insurance and provident funds has not been paid over. An amount of R7.5m for gold processed in the Grootvlei plant for Copper Eagle 108 CC has disappeared, and mineworkers of all ranks tell noseweek that truckloads of ore brought up from Grootvlei shafts are not processed on site but quietly driven on to other plants on the East Rand, presumably so the gold does not reflect on Grootvlei’s books.

Tens of millions seem to have been paid to the Bhana family for various services including “consulting fees”, but Aurora is strongly resisting a forensic audit.

Directors, advisors and mine managers all clearly mistrust each other. Workers have been on strike for a month. Many have left to seek work elsewhere.

Will anyone go to jail for this mess? Will the sacrifices made by the men at Shaft 3 prove worthwhile? Is Ms Sonjica capable of taking prompt action? 

Don’t hold your breath. If you think the crowd running the Grootvlei mine are bad, remember this: it’s their uncles and aunties who are running the government. Same taste in flash cars, same distaste for audits and bookkeeping.

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Submitted by : Jennifer Spear of KAAPMUIDEN on 2010-05-02 14:29:08
Any idea who can and WILL do something about it? At the rate at which we are destroying our wetlands, we are already in serious trouble. But without huge consequences (financial is not enough - the perpetrators must be jailed) it will not improve.
Submitted by : Mike Turner of RANDBURG on 2010-04-30 12:16:39
"Is Ms Sonjica capable of taking prompt action?" Just like her ANC cronies, all she is capable of taking is a bribe when she fondly imagines that no-one is looking. Mike.
Submitted by : Mike Turner of RANDBURG on 2010-04-30 12:14:07
Mineweb? Don't make me laugh: they're too shit-scared to offend the high and mighty Mandela and Zuma (and more humble but still slimy Hulley) by telling the truth. Mike.
Submitted by : Scott Cundill of Johannesburg on 2010-04-29 16:20:30
I think this article may save thousands of lives from water poisoning. ... or should I say "delay their deaths?"
Submitted by : Donovan Jackson of Weltevreden Park on 2010-04-29 12:43:45
Sweet baby Jesus. Mineweb take note...this is how you expose shenanigans at Aurora..


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