Workers describe appalling conditions at Eswatini mine

“To live, I had to quit”

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The entrance to the Michael Lee Enterprises green chert mine sorting and loading site near the Nkomazi River. Photo: Anthony Borrel

  • Workers at a green chert mine in the ecologically sensitive Malolotja Nature Reserve in Eswatini say they work in appalling and unsafe conditions.
  • Workers accuse foreign management at the mine, owned by Taiwanese national Michael Lee, of racism and abuse.
  • One worker died and five suffered severe burns in an explosion last year. The workers allege mismanagement caused the blast.

Just before 5pm on 30 November 2023, a blast at a green chert mine inside the ecologically sensitive Malolotja Nature Reserve killed one worker and left five with serious burns.

Mbhekeni Mncina was 24 years old when he died. His father, Jabulani Mncina, says he still has not received an official report about the circumstances leading to his son’s death from Michael Lee Enterprises, despite being promised one by the mine’s communications manager Makhosonkhe Dlamini.

GroundUp also asked several people in top management for the report.

Mbhekeni Mncina was 24 when he died. Photo: supplied

Thembinkosi Zwane, 26, who was injured in the blast and spent four months recuperating and is still receiving treatment for his wounds at the Mbabane Clinic, told GroundUp what he remembers.

He said that afternoon, even though their knock-off time was approaching, they were ordered to pack explosives into holes drilled into the rock face. They would normally load several plastic-encased packages of explosive and push it down the hole with a plastic pipe or a wooden pole. That afternoon neither the pole nor the pipe were doing the job well. The impatient supervisor ordered them to use a metal bar, usually used for digging. On contact with the rock, there was a spark, and in a split second a blast accompanied by flames.

There was a wheelbarrow containing more explosives behind Mbhekeni. As he tried to flee, he tripped over it and fell.

“When they took us to a lorry so we could be rushed to hospital, we noticed that Mbhekeni’s clothes had burned into his skin,” said Zwane.

They were initially taken to the government hospital in Piggs Peak.

“When I visited him in hospital, he was completely covered in bandages. Only his nose was exposed; and was itself burned,” said Mbhekeni’s father.

Mbhekeni lived for 14 days in what his father says was excruciating pain. He died on Thursday 14 December 2023 and was buried on Saturday 23 December early in the morning, as is the custom in rural Eswatini.

None of the workers we spoke to had received any training to do the jobs they were doing.

Nkondlo Douglas Masango says he was the official blaster at the mine until he was fired in April. In a telephonic interview he said on the day of the explosion he was sick and had been taken to the clinic in Nkhaba. Before he left, he was asked to blast because they were in haste to get a specific quantity of stone.

“But I turned them down. First, because as a rule I did not blast after 4pm; and, also, because I was sick,” said Masango.

“I later learned that the Chinese workers had ordered Mncina’s boy [Mbhekeni] and the others to load explosives into holes. This is troubling because these Chinese guys do not have the licence for blasting. It should have never been done in my absence,” said Masango.

Police officers from Piggs Peak visited Masango after the incident. “I told them everything and they took a statement,” he said.

“We are not human beings to them”

A worker, who we have decided to keep anonymous for his safety, says there are about 55 Eswatini workers at the site and that they are treated with disdain and their safety is completely disregarded.

He said nothing has changed since the November blast. He claims the vehicle that transports them on the steep mountain to the mining site is unroadworthy. No vehicle stays on site in case of an accident. He alleged there have been incidents of physical abuse of workers.

“We are not human beings to them,” he said.

“Everyone can see that something is seriously wrong here. But we do not say anything even though we are suffering because we need the job to survive.”

He would have quit long ago, he said, had it not been for the fact that he is a breadwinner.

Some workers have resigned. Tefana Siwela left after payday in October 2023, a month before the fatal blast.

Siwela said they would sometimes be ordered to mix chemicals in a bucket using wooden sticks and without masks.

“The Chinese guys would only watch and give orders from a safe distance,” he said.

He said there were days he would feel extremely weak and would not know what was the matter with him. In the middle of an extremely dangerous task while perched on a rock, he would suddenly want to doze off. It was not normal exhaustion.

“I had inhaled a lot of chemicals, and something was wrong with me,” Siwela said.

“We [Siwela and other workers] went to the government hospital in Piggs Peak for some tests. There the doctor said he would not decide for us as we are old, but if he were in our position, he would resign. He asked if we did not have livelihoods before the mine came, if we could not hustle like before.”

“To live, I had to quit,” said Siwela.

Mine director Michael Lee was earlier this year available to the media after his company was granted a mining licence by the government in February. He is no longer responding to calls or emails now.


We previously reported how the mine has been exporting chert although it only has a prospecting licence, and it has no environmental authorisation for either activity.

In May and June, the Eswatini Environmental Authority made several unannounced visits.

“So, whenever the environment people come for inspections, we are told to disappear into the forest. They leave one or two people loitering about, pretending that no work is going on,” a worker told GroundUp.

However, the company appears to have now stopped ferrying stone from its Nkomazi sorting site to Maputo harbour. But workers are still expected to come to work daily.

GroundUp went to the sorting site on 13 June.

“Now that we are not loading the stone into shipping containers, there is not much work for us. But they find tasks for us to do anyway. We were cutting grass today,” a worker told us.

We spoke to four workers, all of whom were in tattered overalls and torn safety boots given to them a year ago when they were hired.

“But when the king came to visit the mine on 22 February, we were given new orange uniforms. They took them as soon as the king left,” said a worker.

The workers are on three-month renewable contracts and take home the equivalent of between R2,400 and R2,800 a month.

Their contracts will expire at the end of the month. The workers say they do not know if their contracts will be renewed.

The principal secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security Makhosini Mndawe, through communications officer Nompilo Mncina, told GroundUp he cannot comment on the labour issues at the mine “as the matter is still being probed and investigated”.

Phindile Vilakati, Royal Eswatini Police spokesperson, said they do not give comments to media houses not known to them. To get comment, GroundUp would have to be accredited through the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology and have to be vetted.

However, police GroundUp spoke to told us there are several open cases.

Neither the mine’s human resources manager nor the safety officer replied to us.

Mine operations manager Mfanufikile Mashinini, who did not respond to us for our previous story, took nine days before promising to respond for this story in a few days time. We will add the response when received.

The grave of Mbhekeni Mncina at his parental home in Ndeva, Eswatini. Photo: Cebelihle Mbuyisa

TOPICS:  Labour Mining

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