Africa, Headlines

MINING-ZIMBABWE: Lessons From a Disaster

Lewis Machipisa

HWANGE, ZIMBABWE, Jun 17 1998 (IPS) - Twenty-six years ago, some 427 mine workers and a few visitors went underground at Kamandama Number Two Mine at Wankie Colliery. They were never to be seen again as a blast in the mine killed them all.

Explanations about what went wrong on June 6, 1972 remain unclear.

An elderly man, who was employed at the colliery mine when the disaster struck, told IPS at the mine that it could have been a political attack. “Ian Smith (the then Rhodesian Prime Minister) was supposed to have gone down that day,” the man boldly claimed.

Wankie Colliery Managing Director Kudzai Bwerinofa however, argues that the blast could have been caused by a methane gas explosion which in turn triggered a coal dust explosion which swept through the mine.

This was the biggest disaster in Zimbabwe’s mining history and the sealed mine shaft where the more than 400 people died, marks the biggest mass grave in the country.

The issue of safety in the mines still rears its head in Zimbabwe.

“In the past, mining was an unsafe activity without any guarantees that if you went down you would come back,” Bwerinofa says. “In the old days, people who went underground would instruct their families not to make sadza (Zimbabwe’s staple food) for them, because they were not sure whether they were coming back.

“But today, we are almost 100 percent sure that they will come back. There will be slip ups from time to time,” adds Bwerinofa.

Wankie Colliery, located 800 kilometres from the capital city of Harare, has come a long way in terms of safety since the 1972 disaster, Bwerinofa says.

“We now have a point system which is supervised by the Safety, Health and Environment Committee. We have a safety competition and a very vigorous accident committee,” Bwerinofa explains.

The disaster also marked a turning point for mine safety in this Southern African country, notes Jency Mandizha, deputy chief government Mining Engineer.

“There have been lots of improvement in our legislation since the Wankie disaster,” explains Mandizha. “For example, before the disaster, Wankie was not declared a Fiery Mine which would have made it mandatory that only flame-proof machinery was used at the mine. Wankie Colliery and two other mines have since been declared fiery mines.

“Other mines (in Zimbabwe) are protected by a number of Explosive Regulations, Mining (Management and Safety) Regulations,” he adds.

Mandizha says that Wankie had not been declared a Fiery Mine, because the coal was mined on the surface where the concentration of methane, which caused the 1972 explosion, is low on the surface as opposed to underground.

“We now have a lot of regulations regarding ventilation, entry procedures are very strict and we have emergency contigency measures in place,” said Mandizha.

“Zimbabwe’s mines are now world class operations. In some respects we are even stricter than the U.S. and Canadian regulations,” boasts Mandizha.

While these measures have enhanced the safety of the 4,500 work force at Wankie, the mine is not accident free, the Colliery’s managing director, Bwerinofa admits.

“The problem now is near misses which are not reported. Because it works against you if you have a near miss and report it, people try to hide these things so that they look like they have had a good (safety) record. But it is these near misses that end up in accidents,” says Bwerinofa.

The good thing however, Bwerinofa adds, is that workers are now more involved in the supervision and no longer have to wait for some manager to do it.

Patrick Mushininga, senior vice-president of the Associated Mine Workers of Zimbabwe, says that “since the Kamandama incident, the mining industry has gained a lot of experience”.

“Every effort has been made to make sure that mines are made safe for our members. Yes, accidents happen as mining is very hazardous, but the union has taken a role in making sure that safety standards are practised throughout,” Mushininga says.

So far this year, more than 45 miners have been killed in mine accidents. “We feel this figure, out of total of 60,000 members, is too high. We would like to bring it down to three or four a year, and zero eventually,” Mushininga says.

An average of 45 miners die every year in Zimbabwe, he adds. There are some 200 large-scale mines and more than 1,000 small- scale mines in Zimbabwe.

To bring down the figure, his association has now put in place safety committees which discuss safety and health issues in every mining location.

However, Edmund Ruzive, Secretary-General of the Associated Mine Workers of Zimbabwe says that the safety situation is not quite well under control.

“We are very much concerned with the behaviour of other mine management officials. They don’t pay particular attention to health and safety. What they encourage is production and production at the detriment of safety. We are totally against this,” Ruzive told IPS.

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