A former illegal miner says it's possible that one or more zama zamas became trapped underground along with three missing employees when a part of Lily Mine collapsed in 2016.
Known only as Mr X, he was testifying at an inquest into the mine collapse, which is being held to determine whether anyone should be held responsible for the death of three Lily Mine employees, Solomon Nyirenda, Pretty Nkambule and Yvonne Mnisi, when they became trapped underground after the mine collapse.
The inquiry is being held in the Mbombela Magistrate's Court.
Testifying via CCTV from an unknown location, Mr X said he was part of illegal miners who extracted gold from Lily Mine.
He said he was formally employed by the mine two years before the tragedy.
"It is possible that there are more than three people trapped underground. One family is looking for an illegal miner who disappeared during the 5 February 2016 incident.
"It won't be easy to identify the missing zama zama because many of them were from neighbouring countries. We only knew each other through first names or nicknames," Mr X testified.
He claimed that as a zama zama, he made enough money before his formal appointment as a miner.
Mr X said there were many gold buyers in the township where he lived.
He added: "There were many ways of accessing Lily Mine, including through ventilation shafts. We also used holes that led us deep into the mine, especially at Level 3. There was also another hole near the mountain that we also used to access the mine.
"There were two other holes near the zero level. One hole was on the right-hand side of the mine. It took us between three to four hours to reach the targeted place. At times, we had to crawl on our stomachs," he said.
Mr X claimed that they usually pounced on the mine at night because fewer miners were working at the time.
"Usually, during the day, we processed gold we had extracted at night. We separated the mampara gold from the real ore," he testified.
He claimed that he was also responsible for selling soft drinks, chicken meat, tinned fish, instant porridge and cigarettes in exchange for pieces of gold.
"We entered the mine carrying backpacks. We were only searched by security guards when we exited the mine. We bought overalls from some mineworkers. Some overalls were purchased from a PPE shop in Barberton.
"We got explosives from a mine in Barberton. Others were stolen from Lily Mine. We preferably blasted at Levels 3, 8 and 10. Our blasting coincided with that of the mineworkers.
"We would reset a timer and observe when their workers exited the mine, and then we blasted our explosives. We had our small holes inside the mine where we hid whenever we blasted," Mr X said.
He claimed that every zama zama had a job description underground.
Mr X alleged that Nyirenda confessed to him that he helped zama zamas by supplying them with mining equipment.
"A fellow illegal miner also confided in me that Nyirenda was the person who provided them with lamps and other equipment in exchange for cash," he said.
Mr X implicated late Lily Mine security manager Tjaart van Straaten when he claimed he colluded with zama zamas in exchange for cash.
"Whenever we exited the mine, we were rushed to pay 'Yster', who later turned out to be Van Straaten," he said.
"From 2014, illegal miners started mining the crown pillar. They targeted the crown pillar because it carried enough gold. They followed a tunnel to reach the crown pillar. Some illegal miners targeted 'madala side' (a place that had been legally mined).
"We also built a wooden scaffolding underground to target the crown pillar. The last blast on the crown pillar took place on 4 February 2016. A zama zama told me [in] the township that while they were stealing gold underground, he saw dust coming from Level 4. He and other zama zamas exited the mine through [the] madala side," he said.
Nyirenda, Nkambule and Mnisi, were working inside the lamp room when it was swallowed underground.