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By Hein Kaiser

Journalist


Boksburg gas leak: Conflicting theories and the fatal price of illegal gold

The cause of the fatal Boksburg gas leak remains shrouded in mystery as conflicting theories and challenging circumstances emerge.


The mystery behind the cause of the gas leak that killed 17 people – including three children – late on Tuesday night at the Angelo informal settlement in Boksburg, has deepened.

While its genesis has been the subject of much speculation, it’s likely the true cause may never come to light.

Angelo lies between two mine dumps and is in active zama zama territory. Estimates are that the illegal miners presently refine around 30 to 40 grams of gold daily.

It’s an operation hidden deep inside the settlement. Two theories have been doing the rounds.

One of the rumours is that the zama zamas tried to cut open the gas cylinders and fashion the metal into what they call a penduka, or rock crushing machine.

One of the cylinders may have contained an oxide of nitrogen – which can be deadly if inhaled.

But, security expert Marius van der Merwe of QRF Task Team, who was on the scene yesterday, said this scenario was unlikely.

ALSO READ: Scores dead after gas leak at Angelo informal settlement in Boksburg

He said pendukas were manufactured elsewhere, by a supplier to the illegal mining value chain, and that there was evidence enough to suggest that right after the incident, the equipment was quickly removed.

“Cutting open a high-pressure vessel containing noxious gas should have at the very least, caused a small combustible event. And none was reported,” said Van der Merwe.

It was more than likely an accident where a cylinder was knocked over, the valve became damaged, and the gas leaked out.

Van der Merwe added that this seemed the most likely scenario considering the cramped, slippery environment of the ramshackle structure.

A resident of a neighbouring shack suggested something more sinister.

He said the illegal miners have grown in numbers and there were now different factions, all competing for the same prize.

He told The Citizen he was witness to several conflicts between them. He suspects a measure of sabotage was involved and, as he put it, for them to show others that they mean business.

Another resident was asleep next door to the leaking gas shack.

“I was lucky I survived. I don’t know how,” he told The Citizen. He shared how he saw mothers and their toddlers being carried away, covered in plastic as if their lives meant nothing.

All, he said, because of the miners chasing money.

Van der Merwe, whose crew protects several mines and often clashes with zama zamas across the East Rand, said while these kinds of mini processing plants look desperate, they earn the illegal miners’ “keepers” around R100 000 a day.

In contrast, the people who do the dirty work and live in conditions of near abject poverty, are rewarded with as little as R20 a shift.

Local ward councillor Ashley Hoods blamed the government.

The incident was merely the tip of an iceberg that has, at its root, the lack of service delivery, nonexistent border control and poor enforcement of immigration laws.

Hoods also noted the sustained lack of resources that make it impossible for the police to adequately fight crime.

Angelo residents told The Citizen most people in the settlement were illegal foreigners. But there’s no way to verify this, bar several locals who admitted their origins to the journalist.

They were all from Lesotho or Zimbabwe.

A few metres from the site of the deadly gas leak, there is another makeshift zama zama processing plant that near mirrors the area where the tragedy occurred.

It now lies abandoned while intense law enforcement activity occurred nearby.

Here, The Citizen discovered acid wash basins, a deep well for water supply, similar accommodation to the filthy accommodation and ablution conditions at the scene of the incident and bags of processed rock from where gold gets extracted.

A corrugated iron truck port nearby further signals that significant activity took place in the area.

“It was built to hide activities from drones, sometimes used by authorities to gather intelligence,” said Van der Merwe.

It is adjacent to a shebeen installed by the employers of the illegal miners, with a back door leading into one of the processing areas.

ALSO READ: WATCH: Boksburg gas leak death toll rises

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