WELKOM –– They crossed the border into South Africa in search of fortune but instead they found death.
They were crushed and burnt to death under Eland mine in Welkom when a fire broke out in the shaft in which they were illegally mining in May.
Gold is what they were looking for but painful death is what they found.
When the gruelling body count ended the number had reached 89 and 48 were identified as Basotho.
Relatives from Lesotho managed to identify some of the dead but 24 bodies remained unclaimed at the Welkom government mortuary.
Officials believe that the majority of the unidentified and unclaimed bodies belonged to Basotho gold panners.
Some of the victims were from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and some parts of South Africa.
They were given a pauper’s burial on Wednesday last week.
Matjhabeng Municipality’s Phumlane cemetery in Welkom was their final resting place.
Mourners were a handful of well-wishers who had come to bid farewell to strangers they knew nothing about except that they were killed in a mine near their homes.
They were buried away from home, away from their kind.
Their story is one of a fortune hunt that went horriblly wrong.
The Sunday Express attended the “funeral”.
The Reverend Piet Kraal and Ezekiel Moholo led the service in prayer.
The “coffins” were made of saw-dust cardboard and had no handles.
Some of the coffin covers kept falling off as they were lowered into the graves, complicating the undertakers’ job.
There was no body viewing for most of the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition.
The stench of decaying bodies enveloped the air around the cemetery.
The undertakers had to cover their faces with masks.
Mourners covered their noses with their hands.
So cheap were the coffins that in some cases fluids from the decomposing bodies dripped through the wood.
Ropes were used to lower the coffins into 24 graves.
A few media people, some government officials, the police and municipal workers comprised what could pass as the mourners.
“Just imagine if one of these men was your relative, who had left home in search of a job promising to come back but they never did,” said the councillor of Matjhabeng, Peter Noveld, in a shaky voice.
“None of us would be happy to see their relatives being buried in this way.”
Midway through the proceedings, a group of seven women who were in shawls joined the mourners.
They had come from Thabong, a village close to the cemetery.
They said they had heard about the burial on radio.
“We had to come to bid farewell to our sons and brothers,” said a tearful old woman who was part of the group.
“I didn’t know any of the people who died but up to this old age I had never seen anything like this in my entire life,” she added.
“Anybody could have been befallen by a similar tragedy whether they are legal or illegal miners, why should these people be buried in this manner?”
The consul-general of Lesotho in Pretoria, Mothooasebaka Lehloenya, attended the burial.
He was accompanied by the consul in Welkom, Sethunya Koqo, and his wife.
“This burial of unidentified men could still mean that some of them are Basotho,” Lehloenya said.
“This is God’s will and no one can really challenge it.”
Lesotho legislator Lekhetho Rakuoane, who also assisted some people carry their dead back home in June, was there.
He said although interred away from home these men had at least found a resting place.
“I would therefore humbly request that these graves be marked for easy identification for those who might still want to trace their loved ones,”Rakuoane said.
Rakuoane told the Sunday Express yesterday that the Welkom funeral reminded him of the burial of 40 people who perished in the Maseru massacre in 1982.
Thirty-two of the victims were South Africans and they were buried at Thibella.
“The circumstances under which the people died are different but the magnitude is the same. I felt very sad,” he said.
He said as late as Monday last week some families were still trying to identify their relatives among the dead.
“They were told that they could not identify the bodies because they had decomposed. It was difficult to do it,” said Rakuoane.
“We have been told that there would be some arrangement for some DNA tests to verify the identity of the dead.
“Some samples were taken.
“At least some families will be able to find closure.”