Illegal mining will cause Jozi to cave in – expert

With no official cause named, experts point fingers to zama zamas

Mmembers of the public help untangle a car from the rubble of Lillian Ngoyi street after an explosion that hit the Johannesburg CBD on Wednesday.
Mmembers of the public help untangle a car from the rubble of Lillian Ngoyi street after an explosion that hit the Johannesburg CBD on Wednesday.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Experts have linked the underground explosion in the Johannesburg CBD to illegal activities that have been plaguing the city for years.

The explosion claimed one life, leaving 48 others injured, when a sudden force cracked open Lilian Ngoyi Street (formerly Bree Street), flinging vehicles into the air on Wednesday evening. Although the cause of the explosion is unknown, gas has not been ruled out by officials. 

Geographer Malaika Mahlatsi, however, said the history of mining in Johannesburg indicated that mine shafts existed in many parts of the CBD. 

She said she strongly believed that the explosion was the work of illegal mining, which has for years compromised the city’s quality of soil, water and infrastructure. 

“According to town plan regulations, underground gas lines are not allowed to be placed in the middle of the road. And that is in consideration of the amount of friction that would be there with vehicle movement and the hive of activity. Gas pipeline goes on the sidewalks.

“If it had been an explosion as a result of a gas line exploding in the middle of the road, then government must account on how that line was approved to be in the middle of toad,” said Mahlatsi.

She said the road would not have been cracked in the middle had the explosion been caused by gas.

Mahlatsi said Bree Street was, along with many parts of the Johannesburg CDB, on top of a mining area called the Witwatersrand mining basin, which runs for about 56km from the East Rand to the West Rand.

Here, mining activities have been taking place since the gold rush in the 1880s and illegal miners have since taken over different old mines or developed shafts of their own connecting to this route. 

“For centuries, the soil has been weakened by mining activity since the gold rush. That, now coupled with illegal miners who employ all sorts of blasting methods and explosives on soil that is already unstable ... I strongly believe that is what caused the explosion.

“It will be unlikely that buildings in that area will be safe for people given the instability of the ground.”

She said this was indicative of the extent of illegal mining in Johannesburg, which has fast become a threat to the habitants of the city, with some areas in the East Rand and the West Rand already showing signs of caving in.

“Johannesburg is going to cave in,” she said.

However, department of mineral resources spokesperson Ernest Mulibana disputed this, saying the department's mining experts had confirmed that there was no mine underneath where the explosion happened, as a result, they believed that zama-zamas were not likely to have been the cause of the explosion.

Head of geotechnical and pavement engineering research and coordinator of civil engineering capstone design at the University of Johannesburg, Prof Felix Okonta, also believed the explosion could have been the work of zama-zamas who were trying to blast one of the rocks underneath the Joburg CBD.

Although he did not completely rule out a gas leak, Okonta

said a bomb used to split rocks could have been used to push through one of the old mining shafts. 

“The zama-zamas engage in unregulated mining. Joburg is littered with old mine shafts, there are rocks that hold the minerals, so you can have zama-zamas attacking those walls.

"There are so many long corridors of mine shafts that crisscross Johannesburg. It is not impossible that the (explosion) had to do with mining activities, where blasting could have happened.

"The Park Station is underground and there are underground corridors and these corridors we really don't know the extent they go. People could have started digging for gold in those tunnels.”

Dr Onkgopotse Madumo, a lecturer at the school of public management, governance and public policy at the University of Johannesburg, believes it might take “long” to get the affected area back to normalcy. 

“With Covid-19, we have seen how municipalities have not been able to adequately respond to a disaster. With this kind of disaster that even damages infrastructure it would take even longer, given that with infrastructural damage, the municipality would need to first try to rationalise the extent of the damage. They would have to quantify it within this region in terms of money that needs to be allocated."

He said repair work might take up to four years.

“Because this is a disaster and could easily be declared one, we need to put the infrastructural project on a tender because the road that was damaged must be fixed, and the underground would probably need to be replaced, so it might take more than six months, and I am being optimistic here by saying six months, but it could be longer than six months.

“This is not a patchwork, it is not like you are working with potholes. For the project to even start, and for them to be able to appoint the companies that would be awarded the tender to work on the road, that could take six months. The project itself could take about three to four years or so. This is a serious implication.”

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