“It’s time for Denel to move way from our communities”

Families and community members placed flowers at the entrance to the Rheinmetall Denel Munition plant where eight workers were killed in September 2018. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

A memorial service for the workers killed in an explosion at Rheinmetall Denel Munition was held on Thursday evening.

Families of the workers who were killed in the explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) plant near Somerset West earlier this week could not hold back their tears during a memorial service held at the Anglican Church in Macassar on Thursday night. The eldest of the eight workers who were killed was 51-year old Steve Isaac and the youngest, 18-year-old Bradley Tandy.

According to a media statement by Denel, the explosion took place at a propellant operations building, destroying an entire building and the immediate surrounding blast wall. The cause of the explosion was an “ignition propellant” consisting of more than 95 percent nitrocellulose, commonly known as gun-cotton.

Speaking at the memorial service, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille criticised the company for continuing to manufacture weapons and so close to a residential area. “It is time that Denel moves away from our communities. The dangers of living like this is unacceptable. We want a peaceful world yet Denel produces weapons. Next time the explosion will affect the whole of Macassar. They must move away from our residential areas and make space so that we can build houses,” said de Lille. Most people in Macassar rely on the plant for jobs.

RDM CEO Norbert Schulze told the media that there was also leakage from one of the tanks at this site, but that it had no affect on workers or the surrounding area.  There have been four safety incidents at Denel in the last 10 years.

Speaking to Elitsha at the memorial service the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ provincial secretary, Malvern de Bruyn said that they want Denel to take full responsibility for what happened and that they must improve the health and safety standard at the factory.

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Responsibility for its workers is not a priority for RDM, however, with some of the workers at the site being employed via a labour broker.

Andrew Noortjie, an organiser for the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu) in the Western Cape said that they are concerned that in the previous four incidents there were no prosecutions. He also lamented the fact that workers have been told to continue reporting to work despite their traumatic experience. “The production should have stopped up until the investigation is done. The fact that the workers were told to come to work is insensitive and reveals what the company is about, which is making profits,” said Noortjie.“We want to be part of the investigation,” he added.

Asked to comment on other workplace incidents that took place this week, de Bruyn said that the time to have an imbizo with government on health and safety in the workplace has come. Three firefighters lost their lives this week in line of duty in Johannesburg.

The African National Congress’s PR (proportional representative) councillor in Macassar said that the families have been advised by the company against speaking to the media for “their own safety”.

Names of the workers who lost their lives during the explosion. Photo by Mzi Velapi

On Monday, Denel issued a statement distancing the state-owned arms manufacturer from RDM. “Denel SOC is a 49% strategic partner to Rheinmetall, a company of German origin. The two companies are run independently of each other with different boards and management structures,” reads the statement.

RDM’s business focus is in Asia, the Middle East, South America, South Africa, other African countries and Europe via Rheinmetall AG. According to a media statement it released on Tuesday this week, “RDM specialises in the design, development and manufacture of large- and medium-caliber ammunition and is a world leader in the field of artillery, mortar and infantry systems and plant engineering.”

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Its product portfolio includes large-calibre ammunition (76mm to 155mm), artillery projectiles, propellant, charges, pyrotechnic carriers, mortar bombs, 40mm grenades and various missile subsystems.”


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