South African police stop search after 4 bodies found in abandoned gold mine; guards accused

SPRINGS, South Africa (AP) — South African police on Friday investigated the deaths of four alleged illegal miners found slain in an abandoned mine, as a company official told local media that security guards would have been justified in shooting them.

Police spokeswoman Col. Noxolo Kweza said Friday that the bodies were recovered a day earlier, after a report in The Sowetan newspaper that said four men mining illegally for gold in the shaft were shot dead Monday by mine guards.

On Friday, a spokesman for Aurora Empowerment Systems, which owns the mine, told the South African Press Association that the miners were trespassing and that the company was allowed to defend its property. Commercial director Thulani Ngubane also said there had been previous shootings, though he gave no further details.

"It is simple... if you go out there and steal gold, should I just go down on my knees and pray? It doesn't work like that. We have to protect our assets," Ngubane said. "...These illegal miners got shot going down underneath by force. Tell me what more our security could have done?"

"It was not the first time that a shooting took place," said Ngubane.

A spokesman for the company declined to comment to The Associated Press on Friday.

The mine east of Johannesburg is owned by President Jacob Zuma's nephew Khulubuse Zuma and Nelson Mandela's grandson Zondwa Mandela. Their company is embroiled in a pay dispute with mineworkers they inherited from several mines they bought from an insolvent company.

Paul Mkhabela, who said he used to bring illegal miners to the mine each day, said only two of the five miners he brought there on Monday had survived.

"I always bring them in the morning, drop them near the mine and fetch them the next day," he said. "Yes, they come back with bags of dirty soil which they wash to extract the gold."

On Thursday, a Johannesburg newspaper, The Sowetan, quoted a survivor, 25-year-old Sam Sithole, as saying he went down a shaft Monday with a group of miners that included two of his brothers and encountered three guards. He said he heard one of the guards giving orders to "shoot everyone."

Sithole told The Sowetan that people were running all over after the first man was shot. He said he survived by pretending to be dead, but one of his brothers was killed.

The Sowetan reported the death toll could be much higher, but that its reporters found only four bodies.

Friday, David Teenage Mnisi, a guard at the mine, told The Associated Press he was on duty Monday and saw seven other guards armed with rifles and handguns descend into the mine.

Mnisi said after five hours, the guards emerged with five men they said were illegal miners. They told him they were detaining the five. Mnisi said he had no other details.

Mnisi said it was not until later that he learned from Sowetan reporters at the scene that some illegal miners were shot underground.

"I was surprised because I did not know that people were killed," he said. "I heard no shooting sound."

Emergency services spokesman Roggers Mamaila said the search resumed Friday morning but did not yield more bodies.

"All emergency members are returning to base, we are certain there are no more bodies," he said. "I can say the four is the official number of the dead."

South Africa is one of the world's largest gold producers and has some of the world's deepest mines. Illegal mining is common, as are deaths due to fires and other accidents in abandoned, unsafe shafts. Last year, more than 80 prospectors were found dead in one of the country's abandoned gold mines.

Police say illegal miners are hired by organized crime rackets.