One year since the collapse of the mine tailings dam, the people of Jagersfontein in the Free State say they cannot forget the disaster. Vivid images of the heavy sludge sweeping away their houses, cars, furniture, land and livestock on the 11th of September last year is still etched in their minds. They fear that the snail pace of justice will follow the same route as the struggle in Marikana which is still being fought in court still 11 years after the massacre.
The reluctance to release reports or implement recommendations from an inquiry on the part of the government came under sharp scrutiny when the Bench-Marks research team released their report and findings on the disaster. It details the progress made so far with regard to restoring the lives of the people of Jagersfontein and what should be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
According to the report, the Department of Home Affairs has replaced identity documents and other important documents that were lost, while the provincial agricultural department has only erected a fence to cordon off a dangerous area. The victims are still displaced, says the report. Others are accommodated in guest houses, while others went back to backyard dwellings. Others have sought refuge with family members. Many have since returned from Bloemfontein, where they were able to find accommodation, to be closer to Jagersfontein and to assess the damage to their properties and monitor efforts to rebuild their lives.
“The deputy president was in Jagersfontein in May and promised that all houses would be built by December 2023. So far, there are only three houses that have been rebuilt out of 164. Yes we see there are contractors on the ground building houses,” says David Van Wyk, a lead researcher for Bench-Marks. But the quality of these three houses remains questionable, adds Van Wyk. “The thickness of the walls is less than the previous house and rooms appear to be much smaller too. Hence contractors were angry at us when we were taking pictures to compare before and after.”
He is also worried that victims will return to empty houses as it seems lost and damaged furniture is not included in the estimation of damage costs, which even excludes cars and other possessions. He is disappointed that restoring people’s lives to a higher standard than prior to a cataclysmic event is not best practice in the mining industry. Although the company has offered R20-million and the Minerals Council donated R50-million towards rebuilding people’s lives, Van Wyk believes the damage caused is more than that.
According to the report only three houses have been built out of the 164.
There is also a report expected from the water and sanitation department which will give much clearer direction on the remedial action to take but sadly there is no hope that this will come anytime soon. Frustrated, Hassen Lorgat, a media and advocacy officer for the foundation said he doesn’t understand why that report should take long or be difficult. He made examples of mining disasters outside of South Africa where reports were released quickly. “Look in the case of Brumadinho in Brazil: about 270 people were killed by sludge when it swept them over a 40 kilometres stretch. In less than a year the investigative report was released and made public. Why can’t we do the same here? I don’t know why our government is deeply entrenched in secrecy and yet we claim to have the most progressive constitution in the world,” he lamented.
He also took a swipe at the media for not keeping track of the story and keeping it alive and for just providing sound bites. “There was hype around this story when it first broke but now this deafening silence on the first anniversary is really worrying.” He also warned politicians that it would be very unfair to go to Jagersfontein on the eve of elections and promise victims all sorts of things while real substantive issues affecting the community are not fully addressed.
While they strongly believe the mining company involved in this disaster should take full responsibility and be liable for prosecution, Van Wyk pointed out that the socioeconomic challenges plaguing Jagersfontein need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Social activist and the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg, Trevor Ngwane, says he doesn’t think anything tangible will come from the company or government. ”Typically you know in this country capitalists are made to get away with murder because of their proximity to politicians. Therefore I’ll urge the community of Jagersfontein to stand up, mobilise and reach out to other like-minded organisations such as Macua [Mining Affected Communities United in Action] to raise their plight. Otherwise they’ll wait forever on government for any solution,” he said.