News in depth BY RICHARD MUPONDE
Avigilant Masotsha considers himself lucky to be alive.
Masotsha, who hails from Kwekwe, was one of the more than 20 illegal miners who were panning for gold underground when a tunnel suddenly gave in.
Five miners were buried underground and five others were seriously injured at the abandoned Nugget Mine in Matobo district, Matabeleland South.
The bodies have since been retrieved and the mine sealed off by the police.
Masotsha narrated how he watched the tunnel collapsing and the agony of seeing the bodies of his colleagues being brought back to the surface.
“I heard a deafening roar and a big thud in the split of a second and before we knew it, we had lost five colleagues,” he said at the scene of the disaster last Tuesday.
Masotsha said the tunnel collapsed a few minutes after he had left the affected area.
He believes the ground gave in because of a stampede by the panners who were scrambling for a chance to go underground.
On the eve of the disaster, the panners were engaged in running battles at the mine as they fought for control of the tunnels and two known gold barons were seriously injured.
“There were a lot of people here with some coming from as far as Silobela, Zvishavane and Shurugwi,” Masotsha said. “I came with some colleagues from Kwekwe after we got a message via WhatsApp that there was a gold rush here.
“But getting the gold was not easy as people stampeded to go underground and on Sunday night there were bloody clashes pitting several gangs.”
He said after the violence died down, they went underground to dig for gold ore.
“It was unfortunate that the tunnel collapsed because of the scramble by people to go underground,” Masotsha added.
“I was lucky because I was able to get out before the total collapse of the tunnel.
“There were 20 of us underground in the tunnel, which had two openings.
“It was the northern opening that gave in and this gave me and my colleagues who were on the southern side the opportunity to escape unharmed.”
Despite the tragic deaths, Masotsha will not be quitting illegal gold mining.
He is part of thousands of illegal miners from all over the country that have invaded Matabeleland South searching for instant wealth from gold mining much to the chagrin of local leaders.
Chiefs and legislators in the province say violence by illegal mining gangs, who also engage in other vices, has become a serious cause for concern.
Chief Sinqobile Mabhena from Esigodini said the Nugget Mine disaster demonstrated how the fight over gold claims in the province was turning deadly.
She said Chief Vezi Maduna from Filabusi was mobilising other chiefs in the province so that they could approach President Emmerson Mnangagwa over the unrest caused by illegal gold miners.
The gangs use all manner of weapons that include machetes, guns and knives as they fight for control of gold claims, mirroring the chaos in the gold mining sector in Midlands.
Matabeleland South is rich in gold with 5 772 registered mining claims and this has made the province a magnet for artisanal miners from across the country.
A number of gold barons that control the claims have been accused of being the source of the chaos in the sector.
Esigodini, Filabusi and Gwanda have become hot spots for the turf wars and the Nugget Mine disaster was the first of its kind in Matobo.
It has since emerged that known gold barons Madodana Moyo and Baron Dube were involved in the fights at the mine, which resulted in a shooting incident on Sunday night.
The two were admitted to United Bulawayo Hospitals following the clashes. Dube was discharged on Wednesday while Moyo is still battling for his life.
Innocent Siziba, the owner of Nugget Mine, said the illegal miners took advantage of the fact that the mine was not operational due to delays by the Mines ministry to issue a licence to his company, Duive Enterprises.
“We waited for three years for our special grant to mine here,” he said. “Our papers were sent to the ministry and we were told they were yet to be approved by the permanent secretary.
“We stopped operations on September 9 last year.”
Siziba said they cannot control the illegal miners because they have no proof that the claims belonged to his company.
Matabeleland South police spokesperson Chief Inspector Philisani Ndebele said he could not comment on the gold wars in the province describing them as national.
Umzingwane MP Levy Mayihlome said the government must clamp down on illegal mining, which he said was getting out of control in his constituency that includes Esigodini.
“Most of these people don’t come from these areas, hence they don’t respect the local communities,” he said.
“This is why they engage in a lot of violence and also terrorise local communities.
“They move from community to community, terrorising the local people because they know they can’t be identified.
“The government should put a system to identify these people when they get into an area.
“They should report to the police for vetting and also report to the local leadership when they get into an area for mining.”
Mayihlome said it was high time the government regularised informal gold mining to engender respect for the rule of law.
Zanu PF youth league chairperson for Matabeleland South Washington Nkomo said the Mines ministry should shoulder the blame for mine disasters such as the one that occurred at Nugget Mine.
He said the ministry was sitting on applications for mining licences, forcing many into illegal activities.
The gold extracted by the illegal miners is often channelled to the parallel market instead of being delivered to the state-owned Fidelity Printers and Refiners.