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Sunday Times STLive By Stephan Hofstatter, Rob Rose and Mzilikazi wa Afrika , 2012-04-08

Implats in death scandal

NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka
Image: Russell Roberts Russell Roberts

Impala Platinum stands accused of orchestrating a cover-up of a suspicious mining death and then going to great lengths to muzzle the whistleblower who wanted to expose the truth.

The Sunday Times can today reveal that the world's second-largest platinum mining company faces criminal charges, including culpable homicide, for its role in the death of mine worker and Lesotho national Paulus Mosala Phethoka.

It is the first time that Implats is being charged criminally after a fatal mine accident. The company has, however, failed to make any public disclosures about it.

Late last month, Implats obtained an interdict in the High Court in Pretoria preventing its former training manager, Zirk Jansen, from releasing a documentary on the events that caused Phethoka's death at the company's Rustenberg platinum mine in 2007.

Because of the interdict, the documentary cannot be quoted from. But documents seen by the Sunday Times, including reports, financial documents and extensive court files, paint a damning picture of how Implats officials tried to cover up Phethoka's suspicious death.

National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told the Sunday Times: "A black miner dies and it is no story; a rhino dies and it is a big story."

Seshoka said mine industry "captains" were "largely racist and have total disregard for human lives, particularly black workers".

He added: "People die in the mines every day as a result of negligence. There are no prosecutions, there are no arrests, there is no justice."

Phethoka joined the mine on February 1 2007 and completed rudimentary training that qualified him as an equipment helper. Six weeks later, he was sent underground unsupervised to shore up a hanging wall, a dangerous job he was not trained to do, and died in a rockfall.

His family in Lesotho are now living in poverty after the payout from Implats was allegedly stolen.

Documents reveal that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) decided in December 2010 to charge Implats and its executives for culpable homicide or, alternatively, for contraventions of the Mine Health and Safety Act for a "failure to consider an employee's training and capabilities regarding health and safety".

The NPA's decision was based on a report signed by mining inspector SJ Ludick, who found Phethoka died because mine bosses had not ensured he was safe when sent to install support bars under a dangerous overhang that collapsed on him.

Safety lapses by Implats cited in the report include:

Sending Phethoka to do a dangerous job for which "he was not trained", which is illegal under the Mine Health and Safety Act;

Failing to install a barricade against rolling rocks, despite a "special instruction" to do so issued on July 14 2006 by the mine's rock engineers;

Failing to ensure a qualified miner supervised the installation of that barricade; and

Failing to ensure there was enough "supervisional control".

Though Implats chief executive David Brown was aware of the details of the case, his company took the startling step of launching a 276-page interdict application to silence Jansen, a former employee with intimate knowledge of Implats's safety record.

Jansen had produced an amateur documentary placing the blame for Phethoka's death squarely on Implats, so the company got an order stopping him from "publicising" it.

In its court application, Implats asked the court to prevent Jansen from telling anyone that it "operates as arrogant thugs", that it was "sleazy" and that it used its "financial muscle to cover up the killing of Phethoka".

When contacted and asked why the company had taken this step, Brown said Jansen was a "malicious" individual, and interdicting the documentary was justified because it was "emotional, sensational and just not true".

"Zirk Jansen has been discredited in a court of law already, and we will be pursing legal channels," he said.

Implats lawyers told the Sunday Times that the mining company was the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by Jansen after he was fired for a number of things, including improperly ensuring his wife's training company got work from Implats.

Implats legal manager Stefanie Vivier refused to comment on the main issue - the mine inspector's report that fingered eight Implats officials for Phethoka's death. Notably, Jansen was not among those eight individuals.

"The criminal matter is pending. It is not resolved yet and is therefore sub judice," said Vivier. The case is due to be heard in the Bafokeng Regional Court in Rustenburg on Wednesday.

Asked why Implats needed to muzzle Jansen and prevent the screening of his documentary if it had nothing to hide, Vivier said Implats had a duty to protect employees and shareholders from Jansen's "smear campaign".

However, Jansen's lawyer, Harry Pretorius, said the purpose of the documentary was simply "to expose wrongdoing".

"Zirk Jansen uncovered the fact that Paulus Phethoka wasn't trained and exposed it," he said.

Jansen declined to be interviewed.

Implats has admitted that its safety performance is below-par. Chairman Dr Khotso Mokhele wrote in the company's most recent annual report that the safety performance "remains a disappointment to the board", particularly as "eight of our colleagues lost their lives while at work during the past year".

Seven of the deaths happened at the Rustenburg mine where Phethoka died.

Implats's extraordinary effort to prevent details of the criminal case around Phethoka's death from emerging comes at a time when the company's own labour record is in the spotlight.

A strike over wages that started at the Rustenburg mine in January dragged on for six weeks, costing the company R2.4-billion and causing a 20% drop in worldwide platinum production. Three people died in the strike and Implats fired 17200 workers, some of whom it later rehired.

There is also unprecedented pressure from the government over mine fatalities. Two weeks ago, Mines Minister Susan Shabangu slammed firms for not doing enough to halt deaths. So far this year, 22 people have already died in SA's mines.

Seshoka said that Brown "must take full responsibility and be arrested if there is sufficient evidence that the mine was negligent".

investigations@sundaytimes.co.za