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Basotho die in illegal SA mine  

by Sunday Express
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’Marafaele Mohloboli

NINE Lesotho nationals are said to have died due to hunger and suffocation after being trapped underground in an abandoned mine shaft in Welkom, South Africa.

The figure could be higher as there were reports that there were more bodies still lying in the belly of the long-abandoned St Helena gold mine.

Many Basotho and other unemployed people from other countries operate this and other abandoned mines in South Africa in a desperate bid to earn a living. Besides the risks of mine collapses and suffocation, the illegal miners have to contend with deadly turf fights which often break out as rival groups seek to control the mines.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, Lesego Makgothi, recently confirmed that some Lesotho nationals had died in the St Helena mine.

“Nine bodies have already been found and they have all positively been identified as Basotho and we urge people who know that their loved ones are there to go and identify them,” Mr Makgothi said, adding there some of the deceased had false identification documents. He therefore appealed to families who had relatives illegally operating the mines to go Welkom to identify the bodies.

“We are appealing to all those who know that they have their sons and loved ones in the illegal mines to go and identify the bodies which were lucky enough to be brought to the surface.

He further said that there were still Lesotho nationals who were trapped underground without food and proper ventilation.

“We were also told that finding them won’t be easy as they are hiding in the shafts for fear of being arrested. Besides that, the security personnel at the nearby mine have told us that it is too risky to dispatch any people to those shafts (for rescue operations) as they are dysfunctional and hazardous to health. All the holes which were used for entrance have now been blocked and that means that there is no food and the ventilation is also a problem.”

Mr Makgothi said as of Wednesday, 21 people who were all identified as Basotho had so far come out of the illegal mining site and they will be charged with illegal mining, trespassing and illegal migration.

While some families may have found closure after the recovery of their relatives’ bodies, the same cannot be said for ’Mabokang Letšumo (33) of Likalaneng Ha Ramohope in the Maseru district.

It is believed that Ms Letšumo’s husband, Tšeliso Letšumo, is one of those who perished in the depths of St Helena gold mine and his body is yet to be retrieved.

“The last time I heard my husband’s voice was in April when he sent me a voice note from the mobile phone of a fellow miner.

“The cost for communication was too much for us and so I couldn’t check on him frequently,” Ms Letšumo recently told this publication.

She said that on 16 October she was told that her husband was very sick.

“I made some frantic calls but still I did not reach him and one of his friends told me that he would give me an update of his condition since he hadn’t been too well for the past few days.

“On 19 October, one of his friends hinted that he could have passed away and said he would get back to me with the finer details. On 21 October it was confirmed that my husband was no more.

“I pleaded with the bearer of the sad news to kindly help me and get him back to the surface, promising that I would pay. But I was told that none of his friends were strong enough to bring him back to the surface,” Ms Letšumo said.

She added that one of her husband’s friends told her there was no way they could help as all the entry and exit points to the mine had been closed and there was no means of leaving the place or even getting food there.

“I was told that my husband died more than a week ago and he was not the only one who had died. I was told there were others who were fighting for their lives as there was also no water and food at the mine.

“The friend told me that some of the illegal miners had resorted to eating toilet paper and taking cough syrup which sends them into a deep sleep to make them forget about the pangs of hunger.”

Mr Letšumo’s and other decomposing bodies are still trapped underground while the government of Lesotho is considering ways of dealing with the issue.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lesego Makgothi said they were doing all they could to help the families.

“It is however, worth noting that we are caught between a rock and a hard place and we are not sure what we have to do lest we strain our bilateral relations (with South Africa).
“While we admit that our people trespassed we can’t turn a blind eye to their situation because we know that they did that because of the high rate of unemployment in our country. We are engaging our South African counterparts to help us with a solution to this problem,” Mr Makgothi said.



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