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How not to close a mine

Jul 16 2017 06:00
Dewald Van Rensburg

Some of the infrastructure, including the Blyvoor hospital building, has collapsed since the mine’s closure. Picture: Dewald van Rensburg

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Johannesburg - The imminent restructuring of AngloGold Ashanti’s TauTona mine near Carletonville has the next-door neighbours worried.

Between the AngloGold operation and the town lies the now-defunct Blyvooruitzicht (Blyvoor) mine, said to have been the most profitable gold mine in the South African industry’s history.

In 1937 it was the first operation in what would become the West Wits goldfield. In 2013 it abruptly closed when then owners Village Main Reef put it into provisional liquidation.

Since then, Blyvoor’s expansive mine village has been run by a residents’ association that has spent four years trying to maintain infrastructure, keep the water and lights on – and convince the Merafong City municipality to proclaim their village part of the municipality.

“TauTona is a concern to us,” said Pule Molefe, a member of the residents’ association.

“You have 4 500 people there. I can tell you 10% of those people are living in Blyvoor.

“TauTona has a village of its own. If you close the mine and that village is not proclaimed ... are they going to keep maintaining that village? Or will they sell the houses to developers?

“They are in the same position as us. Are they supposed to move away now? Will they be told to go back to their respective homes? Some of them were born there,” said Molefe, himself the third generation of his family to work at Blyvoor.

“We are going to have ghost towns around Merafong.”

TauTona incorporates what used to be the Savuka mine. AngloGold’s plan is now to further consolidate parts of TauTona with the Mponeng mine next door, which still has a long life ahead of it.

The 8 500 potential job losses announced by AngloGold seemingly include the full workforce of TauTona, totalling about 4 500 at present.

LESSONS

AngloGold has promised not to repeat what has become a pattern with old gold mines where they get repeatedly sold on to smaller speculative companies until, almost inevitably, they go broke.

Liquidation generally ensues with workers robbed of severance pay and environmental liabilities entering a legal no-man’s-land.

Harmony Gold, which was built on old second-hand gold mines, represents the best-case scenario.

The infamous collapse of Pamodzi Gold represents the worst case – incidentally involving some of the same mines that Harmony eventually sold on.

Blyvoor was sold to Village Main Reef in 2012, only a year before going into liquidation. This year a new company, Blyvoor Gold, is talking about reopening one shaft on the property.

AngloGold is pumping water from two of Blyvoor’s shafts. With its nearby Mponeng mine still promising a fairly long lifespan in the area, the company will be voluntarily dewatering the mines for the foreseeable future.

AngloGold CEO Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan earlier told City Press the company would be very circumspect about selling its old operations the way it did in the late 1990s. “We are cognisant of what has happened at some other mines,” he said.

Molefe says he is thankful Blyvoor’s village has not deteriorated in the same way that the village at the Buffelsfontein mine outside Klerksdorp has. The mine was closed in 2013, also by Village Main Reef.

The Blyvoor village still has water, but only because the association took the municipality to court. There has been a protracted attempt to reach a deal with Eskom to install prepaid electricity meters in the village.

Early on in the liquidation the village was sold to a private property developer who instituted rentals of R3 500 to R4 500. This developer withdrew.

An insider-outsider dynamic has now evolved with the residents’ association trying to keep village inhabitants from subletting mine houses. Several houses on the fringes of the village are occupied despite very clearly suffering sinkhole damage – a perennial problem due to the intensive mining of the area over decades.

“It is heartbreaking. We had 1 700 employees at liquidation and some were not staying here. We had 950 households and the two hostels,” said Molefe. “Now we have 6 000 people. There is a lot of overcrowding.”

DEAD CITY

Joseph Rammusa, another member of the Blyvoor residents’ association, started working at Blyvoor in 1980.

He witnessed first-hand the decline of Carletonville as one of the world’s major gold fields.

“Carletonville has been affected by a lot of retrenchments. Merafong was a mining city.

“When I started here I think we were about 18 000 people on this mine.

“I have seen retrenchments every year or two years. We have gone through a lot at this mine.

“It is going to affect us,” he says of the TauTona retrenchments.

“Some of the lucky people staying here in our village got employment there [after the liquidation].

“Any retrenchments are last-in-first-out, so obviously those from Blyvoor that were employed by TauTona will get retrenched first,” said Rammusa.

“It is not only affecting the village. It affects Carletonville. Those businesses doing business with TauTona will be affected. The guys working supplying pipes will get retrenched. It is a broad circle, it does not only affect us mine people.”

In 2013 Rammusa was working in Blyvoor’s printing office when he was given an order to translate the mine’s noticeboards: operations are to cease immediately.

“Maybe after a month or two it starts sinking in and you realise it is true, you are unemployed. Your life stops dead, you have no income. I had been working here for 32 years, so you can imagine.

“Within a month it was a free-for-all. There was no security,” he said.

Despite the core village being mostly intact, several mine offices and a large recreation centre on the Blyvoor grounds have been stripped down to almost nothing.

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