Kamandama disaster still haunts Hwange - 46 years on

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Kamandama disaster still haunts Hwange - 46 years on

On 6 June 1972, at approximately 10:15am disaster struck the small mining town of Hwange as Wankie Colliery’s number 2 mine blasted claiming hundreds of lives. Official records claim that 427 people died from what remains as the country’s deadliest disaster to this day. However, local people have a different narrative which supposes the death toll could have been larger than claimed by official sources. Locals claim that the tally reported as the official death toll was recorded by the employer through checking those that did not report for work few days after the disaster. With poor human resources records then, the company could not verify exactly how many people were on duty during the shift chances are the number of those who perished in the mine blast is higher than we know.

The Kamandama disaster in itself is a classic example of Safety Health and Environment (SHE) issues that are linked to extractivism. It probes questions over the efficacy of environmental impact assessments conducted prior to and during mining operations. As we commemorate forty-six years after this tragedy struck the nation, we must take stock and reflect on the lessons learnt and preventive measures put in place to safeguard lives, to safeguard the social and economic rights of mining communities. Mining companies today, it appears, have not drawn enough lessons from the Kamandama disaster. While it is commendable that since 1972, there has not been a casualty of such magnitude as the Kamandama, the social, health and environmental casualties in extractive communities have been equally alarming and worrisome.

What happened on 6 June 1972?

Various schools of thought have been proffered to explain the 6-6 disaster in Hwange. The first school of thought attributed the explosion to coal dust. Some experts thought that growing amount of “coal dust’’ had largely contributed to the mine blast. Press reports during the time of the Wankie Commission of Inquiry reported that the then general manager of Wankie Colliery Gordon Livingstone-Belvins said that he had “thought coal dust at Wankie was dangerously explosive before the No 2 disaster’’. (The Chronicle 23/09/72)

Another school of thought linked the explosion to political and military sabotage. With the escalating war of liberation, racial tensions were increasing and acts of economic sabotage were becoming common. William Finlay a former mine safety officer who retired in 1968 after 20 years of service said it was possible that an ignition of methane gas triggered the tremendous explosion in No 2 Colliery (Chronicle 10 October 1972). He therefore did not rule out sabotage, “During these days of political uncertainty, sabotage cannot be ruled out as a possibility’’. Most black people took this as an act of sabotage because of the guerrilla warfare. (Southern Eye, 2014). Others still believed that it was a genuine accident that was caused by a cigarette from a careless miner.

Whatever the real cause no one really knows, but one thing is for certain. Experts agree on one thing that coal dust explosion spread the fire, triggered by a methane gas ignition. It was generally agreed that methane gas existed in great and dangerous quantities in sections of Wankie’s No.2 Colliery before the explosion. Two earlier “ignitions attributed to the methane gas were recorded at Wankie Colliery in 1960 and 1970 (The Chronicle 7 Sept 1972). The commission of inquiry went on to give a report that the cause of the explosion was only a conjecture. It said that the explosion in No 2 Colliery was a result of a blown out explosive shot, the flame of which ignited the fire dump and thus the coal dust also ignited.

6 June was a tragic day not only for the mining company for the Hwange community and the nation at large. Memories of this tragedy live on. Some were burnt beyond recognition, yet others could not be brought to the surface as a whole. Only limbs and other parts of the bodies which were picked nearer to the entrance. Those beyond a hundred metres could not be saved as the fire became violent and too hot for the rescue team to continue its operations. No. 2 mine was subsequently decommissioned; a memorial site is erected at the mouth of the shaft to this day. May their souls rest in eternal peace.

 

What happened to the survivors of the victims?

Information pertaining to all families of the victims is very sketchy and hard to come by. It is however established through oral narratives in the community that some surviving spouses went away and never to be compensated as they migrated to their homelands, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo-(ZAIRE), Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania. 394 of the victims were black miners while 33 were white miners believed to have been either artisans or supervisors who also perished in the underground inferno. An estimated 47 of the miners were bachelors from Angola and DRC then known as Zaire, who were in their 20s. About 84 miners were believed to be Tonga from Chief Mukumi’s village in Zambia, or the Zambezi Valley in Binga.

Of the known 150 widows, less than six are known to have remained within the mine concession area in Hwange and are credited for starting the Kamandama Disaster Widows initiative. Due to limited or no support the initiative soon fade away living the widows to struggle for a livelihood.

Rosa Zulu, one of the surviving spouses staying in Zambia, has to borrow money, uses total of $25 to come to Zimbabwe to get $30 NSSA payout. The Hwange Colliery Company estimates that about 72 widows are still surviving or at least known to be alive. In addition to the widows, there are children and other dependants of the victims. What probes the mind is that the company has neglected the surviving spouses and dependants of its workers who died in service. It has become a routine that every year the Hwange Colliery Company brings the widows for a routine program and parcel out food hampers hardly worth US$100 in value before sending them away. Hwange residents and widows have lamented the practice by the company noting that the money spend by the company in organising the event, fuel spent, food prepared for guests, and allowances set aside for ‘guest of honour’ – put together that money will do more to improve the livelihoods of the aging widows. The ceremonial recognition and lip service by the company management is not making meaningful impact on their lives.

In a seeming goodwill gesture top management established the Kamandama Memorial Fund few years ago with the declared objective of assisting widows and orphans of the victims of the Kamandama disaster. A piece of land was identified for establishing a ‘truck stop’ with the proceeds to surviving spouses and dependants.  However, residents are appalled as the project has become a personal project for one of the top managers. Completely neglected by the company still extracting resources within their community, the widows called for the government to intervene. The widows receive a paltry $30 pension monthly which is way below the poverty datum line.

The Kamandama disaster is shrouded in secrecy to the extent that community members including families of the victims are afraid to talk about the issue. It boggles the mind, why the company management has refused to open up on this matter. A memorial library or museum for starters would go a long way in preserving the valuable history of this community. It is the lack of openness around the disaster that raises questions and suspicions. Most residents are of the view that the company is shunning responsibility and accountability over the issue. There is also the compensation question. Widows and dependants of the victims claim to have received no compensation from the Colliery Company save for promises after promises. All of the surviving widows have been chucked out of the company houses.

This is a wake-up call for communities endowed with natural resources to make meaningful concessions with incoming investors. Demands for corporate, safety and environmental accountability must be top priority for communities particularly in this era where government is making reforms to increase the ease of doing business in the country and the Zimbabwe is open for business mantra. Extractive companies should put forward proposals for social and environmental accountability before getting down to business.

 

46 Years On...

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72 widows and direct dependants are known to be surviving and living within Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Namibia.

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No compensation for the victims of the Kamandama disaster save for the relocation allowances they were given so that they could move out of the company houses

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Some of the surviving spouses and dependants have no decent shelter

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The surviving families living in abject poverty with no decent shelter, striving for basic food

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Earning a paltry $30/month NSSA payout – with some travelling from as far as Zambia using approximately $25 in transport fares. Is there real social security for the workers and their dependants? The case of Kamandama proves otherwise.

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HCCL giving the widows $100 once a year every 6th of June.

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HCCL raises an average of US$20,000 through the Kamandama golf tournament which is covered with secrecy in its spending

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HCCL promises of income generating projects, educational support for children of the deceased and provision of shelter are yet to be fulfilled.

On the flip side,

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HCCL management drive luxurious cars lives in company houses, and receives nourishing pecks.

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Truck loads full of the coal resource extracted the community are seen on a daily basis attesting that there is productivity.

It is about time we rethink extractivism, social, health and environmental implications.

Release Date: 
Friday, June 8, 2018 - 19:00

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