May 10, 1995 is a date that will forever be etched in the minds of families of the 104 mineworkers who lost their lives in the Vaal Reefs mine disaster, and of their colleagues and the industry as a whole.
The tragedy occurred at Vaal Reefs’ #2 Shaft near Orkney in North West province when an underground locomotive crashed through a barrier into the shaft at a level of 1,700 metres below surface, falling on to a conveyance that was transporting 104 mineworkers underground. The impact caused the conveyance to plunge to the bottom of the shaft, 2,300 metres below surface.
The tragedy coincided – and some would say spurred – a concerted push by mining stakeholders for revisions in legislation and the adoption of a holistic approach to mine health and safety. The Vaal Reefs accident was instructive in the drafting of new legislation, and presaged the promulgation of the Mine Health and Safety Act 29 of 1996, an Act which was viewed as revolutionary at its time – given the reliance it put on tripartite structures – employers, government and unions.
The country, the industry, and the Chamber and its members were numbed by this event. Alan Munro, then Chamber president, said at the time: “We grieve with the families and friends of miners who died and extend to them our sincerest condolences in this time of extreme sorrow.”
The Leon Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the disaster. Among the findings in the ensuing report, was the observation that there had been no safety device in place to adequately prevent the train from entering the shaft. The detaching hook was found to have opened during the accident and released the conveyance from the rope, allowing it to fall to the bottom of the shaft. Had the detaching hook not opened, the elasticity of the rope would have been sufficient to prevent it from breaking, with the consequence that many lives, particularly those of the men on the lower deck, may have been saved. Following the event, the South African Safety in Mining Research Council (SIMRAC) undertook much research aimed at mitigating the risks of detaching hooks.
Against this tragedy, Anglo American Corporation, Vaal Reefs Exploration and Mining and the National Union of Mineworkers created the Vaal Reefs Disaster Trust with the primary objective of providing financial assistance and support to the 431 dependants of employees who died.
Now, 21 years later today, the Chamber reflects on this terrible tragedy. Much progress has been made in the discipline of mine health and safety. So, while we remember the sad and seemingly meaningless loss of lives, we salute those people who go to work every day keeping safe working practices top of mind, and who take care of their friends and colleagues in every possible way. At the same time there are engineers, technicians and other experts constantly working on technology to make our workplaces safer. We salute you all.
The South African mining industry is committed to a policy of Zero Harm and strives to ensure that every mine worker returns from work unharmed and in sound health every day.