Family members of some of the Zimbabweans who died in a disused gold mine in South Africa last month have expressed fears that more bodies are still trapped underground.
At least 23 Zimbabweans died at the abandoned mine near Roodepoort alongside several other foreigners two weeks ago, shortly after it emerged that scores of miners were trapped underground. 30 people were brought up safely by official rescue teams. But the rescue efforts were soon halted because of the threats of dangerous gasses and unstable conditions.
Relatives and friends of the trapped miners soon stepped in and risked going down the mines to retrieve the bodies themselves, using basic equipment like hammers and chisels to get through the earth. The bodies were slowly brought above ground, wrapped in plastic mealie-meal sacks and showing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Mohamed Motala, a social justice campaigner with the South Africa based Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), expressed concern that more bodies could remain in the mine. He said in a recent article that "nobody knows the actual number of men and women still trapped or dead underground because the work they do is considered illegal. So the authorities simply have no proper records of the numbers of people involved."
Motala told SW Radio Africa on Tuesday that there is a "deafening silence" from the authorities in South Africa because the illegal miners are not considered important enough.
"Our constitution covers all who work and live in South Africa so these poor, black Zimbabweans have access to clinics and so on, and so they should also have access to rescue. This situation is a contradiction in how this country's constitution is interpreted and it is worse than inexcusable," Motala said.
One relative of a deceased miner meanwhile was quoted by local media recently as saying that she was 'happy' that her 18 year old brother's body had been found. But she expressed concern about the fate of five other family members who had not surfaced, and whose bodies had not been recovered.
Another man who was involved in operations to retrieve the bodies was also quoted this week as saying that many more bodies were left trapped underground. Nkulumane Ncube, brother to two of the deceased, was quoted by the Chronicle newspaper as saying that the South African officials planned to seal the mine with all the bodies inside, as they could not take risks for illegal miners.
The final count of the bodies retrieved was 27, with the majority being Zimbabwean citizens who were repatriated back to Zimbabwe over the weekend. A somber crowd of mourners met the convoy of coffins just outside Bulawayo on Saturday. Among them was MDC-T MP Tabitha Khumalo who said the incident was "heartbreaking."
"It is so heartbreaking. We raise our kids right and then the Zimbabwean government denies our kids the right to lives and livelihoods," Khumalo said.
She added: "The government of Zimbabwe has literally sentenced the next generation to death. This country ten or twenty years down the line, will have a generation gap."
Reason Ngwenya from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) meanwhile said it was an indictment of the labour situation in Zimbabwe, with no jobs available for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed. He expressed sadness and disappointment that the riches of South Africa are luring Zimbabweans to illegality, when their home is so abundant in natural resources.
ZAPU President Dumiso Dabengwa also expressed sadness about the situation.
"It's all of us to blame. It reflects our service delivery as a people, as a government, as a nation, that if we can frustrate our people to the extent that they leave their country to find jobs and find themselves tempted to engage in illegal activities in a foreign country, that reflects on all of us," Dabengwa said.