Merriespruit: A mining disaster. 1994

Few people in the Free State town of Virginia will ever forget Tuesday, 22 February 1994. The town witnessed a disaster equaled by few others in history when the northern embankment of the Merriespruit slime dump, owned by Harmony Mine, was split in the centre at approximately 21:00. This followed immediately after the heavy rainfall during the early evening, when more than 45mm apparently fell on the eastern side of Merriespruit in less than an hour.

With the split a V-shaped aperture surfaced approximately midway along the embankment, thereby releasing millions of tons of water and mud. The slick was propelled forward, thus covering some two square kilometers of built-up land, and dammed up the marshland situated to the north-east of the suburb.

The mud-rush lasted for only fifteen minutes, but its effect was heartbreaking and devastating, leaving tragedy in its wake. Seventeen people died, 350 others were treated for injuries, and 1 500 lost their homes and possessions. Thirty-six houses were destroyed and a further 150 damaged, 71 of which were later demolished owing to the foundations having moved.

The head of Virginia’s Emergency and Protection Services was called to the scene first. He, in turn, contacted the Fire Department, the Police and the Virginia Commando, after contacting the head of Virginia’s Civil Protection Organization. One of the most immediate problems which the rescuers had to contend with was the darkness which seriously hampered their efforts to rescue people trapped in the mud. Fire Brigade and Defence Force vehicles, as well as ambulances, were moving in on the scene, while volunteers, emergency services staff, members of Virginia Commando, proto-teams of President Steyn and Harmony Gold Mines and policeman, went into the stricken area to rescue people and bring them to safety. Ambulance services from surrounding places including Welkom, Hennenman, Theunissen, Odendaalsrus and Ventersburg came to their assistance. Victims were transported to various centres where they were dressed and fed. But, of course, the victims had another, equally important need. A medical and mental health work group at Virginia, including psychologists of the SA Defence Force and the SA Police, as well as social workers, assisted the victims in coping with the post-traumatic stress.

The Civil Protection Organization established a Joint Operations Team which co-coordinated operations and this team met for the first time at approximately 23:00 on the same night. At that time an SAP helicopter, fitted with searchlights, was on its way to Virginia from Bloemfontein, along with Defence Force helicopters from Pretoria. The team’s first priority was to determine whether the dam was safe and whether it was necessary to evacuate the whole of Merriespruit. An expert in slime dumps, employed by Harmony Mine, was able to assure the team that it would not be necessary.

The area was declared a disaster area by the then State President, Mr F W de Klerk, following a report from an investigation team of the Ministry of National Health. The National Disaster Fund Council opened an office at the town. A disaster fund was started and, apart from food and clothing, donations poured in from all over South Africa.

Cleaning operations started almost immediately after the disaster took place. Harmony Mine and several of its contractor companies, together with municipal workers from Virginia and Welkom and the engineering corps of the Defence Force, took on this mammoth task. Dust was a huge problem, while the sanitary and other needs of the more than five hundred workers created their own logistic problems. Within a month the bulk of the mud was removed, although the operations were hampered by the necessity of working slowly in case more bodies should be uncovered. The body of the last missing victim was recovered at about this time.

In the meantime, virtually within one week of the disaster having taken place, the Virginia Town Clerk – also the Head of Virginia’s Civil Protection Services – had called upon the Provincial Administration of the Orange Free State to assist with the communications surrounding the disaster. Mr Christo Jonck also called in the services of Zarine Roodt, a public relations consultant practicing in Bloemfontein, some 160km from Virginia. Mr Jonck had the foresight to realize that, although those concerned were handling the disaster itself in the most effective manner possible, they needed the assistance of communications experts. Working under the chairmanship of the private consultant, Zarine Roodt, the Virginia Municipality’s public relations officer, Leonora Labuschagne and two persons seconded by the Sub-directorate Communication of the PAO, compiled a comprehensive planning document. The document addressed the various areas identified by the situation analysis conducted by Danie Olivier and Karen Combrinck of the PAO.

The most immediate problem which the task force faced was that of time pressure. In addition, Danie Olivier and Karen Combrinck were spending days on end at Virginia to assist with routine communication matters and especially with media enquiries. A further problem was the sheer scope of the task at hand and its multi-dimensional nature, e.g. a number of issues identified during the situation analysis could not, strictly speaking, be regarded as communication problems, yet no other forum existed where these would be addressed; also, the Town Clerk had indicated that the plan should include elements of image-building.

The task force recommended that planning be differentiated into four distinct areas:

1. A strategic communications plan which addressed the communications needs created by the disaster.
2. A contingency plan for the recurrence of a community disaster which would be handled by Civil Protection (Burgerlike Beskerming).
3. A comprehensive crisis communication plan, of which elements would be taken up in the strategic communications plan already referred to. It was deemed necessary that such a plan should be drawn up to be used in conjunction with the contingency plan for a community disaster. It was recommended that a crisis communications expert, Viccy Baker, be involved in this process.
4. A comprehensive image-building campaign for Virginia. It was recommended that this campaign be planned once the town had settled into a normal pattern and funds became available for this.

Owing to the comprehensive nature of the plan a few highlights, not even necessarily reflecting the priorities of the plan, are described below:

• The distribution of positive and comprehensive communication to the media on a coordinated basis: this included a combination of media releases, personal contact, regular news conferences and radio and television interviews; a number of strategic communication elements were also identified and these were communicated regularly.
• The regulation of communication flow and the identification of spokespersons: this was essential in view of the fact that various persons were using the disaster as a platform for themselves and were, in the process, disseminating incorrect and misleading information; to this end official spokespersons were identified in various areas and their names were supplied to local media; these people were also informed about the correct procedure for the handling of media.
• The supply of information to residents on proposed reconstruction: this was imperative in view of the fact that people were moving out of the area or strongly considering doing so; apart from communication measures, the task force made specific recommendations on how the area could be beautified. These include involvement of school children and gardening clubs in planting grass and trees, a free advisory service by the Municipality’s Parks and Recreation Department, calls for donations to wholesalers and nurseries, e.g. Trees for Africa and the Nurserymen’s Association, etc.

The proposed plan was presented to the Joint Operations Team on 13 April 1994 and the Municipality’s PRO, together with the people seconded by the PAO, were responsible for its implementation.

Approximately one year after this date, on 1 April 1995, Judge Dirk Kotzé found that the Merriespruit dam had collapsed because senior officials of the Harmony Gold Mine chose to pump thousands of tons of sludge into dams which they knew were weakened and overfilled. Although they must have known they were putting the village of Merriespruit at risk, their only alternative would have been to stop the production of the mine. Judge Kotzé found six employees of Harmony and mining consultant Fraser Alexander, who managed the dam, criminally liable for the disaster which killed 17 people (Sunday Times, 2 April).

In its editorial column, The Star (3 April) comments that Judge Kotzé appears to be well caught up in the spirit of transparency and democracy that sweeps the land. Mention is made of times in this nation’s past when there was an unspoken understanding that it was not the done thing to criticize the large and respectable public companies. This, in turn, points to the necessity of transparency and interaction in all communication.

Tribute should be paid to the crisis team which worked together and was able to alleviate suffering through their prompt action. However, the real challenge lies in the rebuilding of the town, its community and its image.

Star, The. 3 April 1995.
Sunday Times. 2 April 1995.
Whittle, Lucky. 1994. The Merriespruit slime dump disaster. Virginia: unpublished manuscript.

The above case study does not purport to be a fully comprehensive report of events, nor does it identify all the parties involved in assisting with the disaster and ultimate reconstruction of the area.

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