Public meeting in Macassar calls for inquiry into RDM explosion

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

In a public meeting held at Macassar Civic Hall on Thursday night, families of the workers slain by the September 2018 explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel munitions plant called for the company to be held accountable.

A public meeting in Macassar near Somerset West called for a public hearing and an independent inquiry into what led to the blast at Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) in September 2018. Eight workers were killed after an explosion in a propellant operations building, destroying it and the immediate surrounding blast wall. The company at the time said the cause of the explosion was an “ignition propellant” consisting of more than 95 percent nitrocellulose, commonly known as gun-cotton.

Families demand justice

Families of the slain workers who are still in pain called for the company to take full responsibility for what happened and “good” lawyers who can take up their case. Malcolm Davids whose son, Triston Lance Davids, was one of those who perished in the deadly blast, said that as a family they want the company to be held to account. “The company never said that they take full responsibility of what happened. All we want the company to do is to man up. Maybe that will give us closure,” Davids said. According to him, Triston was working at Rheinmetall as an operator while waiting to be accepted by the army. Davids read an sms confirming his recruitment and that he would be doing his basic training in Oudtshoorn.

Davids’s wife, Liesel, said that they want “good lawyers who will not be scared to take on the company.”

Brendon Tandy whose younger brother Bradley was the youngest of the eight workers killed echoed Davids’s view that the company is shirking its responsibility. “My brother wanted to do civil engineering and he was 18 [years old] at the time of his death. The company told us that their findings were that it was a human error but we believe that it was an installation error,” he said.

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Liesel Davids said that they want good lawyers who can take on RDM. Photo by Mzi Velapi

According to peace activist and the country coordinator for World Beyond War, Terry Crawford-Browne, one of the deceased who was a team leader told his family two days before the explosion that he was being overruled by management and had been instructed to use old stock in the propellant mix. In addition, he told them that a new spare part had just been installed in a machine but that it was not fitting properly. 

According to Rhoda Ann Brazier, a community activist and former PR councillor, the company told the bereaved families that their investigation found the cause of the explosion to have been human error. Brazier said they are still waiting for the Department of Labour and the police reports on the blast.

Demand for a public hearing

Guest speaker at the public meeting, anti-apartheid and religious leader Allan Boesak, asked if the company blames the deceased workers by saying that it was a human error. Boesak called for a public hearing and an independent, authoritative inquiry. “We do not believe Rheinmetall and we have other options. The voices of the families need to be heard. The public hearings will give power back to the community and it will be up to you what you do with that power,” said Boesak.

“We are here to pledge solidarity with not only the families but the whole community of Macassar. The sorrow that the families feel has to be felt by the community, province and the country. We have developed many problems in the last 25 years and one of those is that politicians think they are electable but not accountable to the people who elected them. We have to teach our politicians the difference between what our people need and what our people deserve. As a community we need housing but we deserve decent, safe and better paying jobs,” he said.

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Allan Boesak encouraged the community members to organise more people in the community to support the call for a public hearing. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Crawford-Browne said Rheinmetall has an appalling history and does not care about human rights. “During the Nazi era, it used slave labour in its munitions factories. The United Nations Security Council in November 1977 adopted a mandatory arms embargo against apartheid South Africa, which Rheinmetall then deliberately flouted. The company shipped an entire ammunition factory in 1979 to South Africa to manufacture propellant and 155mm shells for Armscor’s G5 artillery,” he said.

Mariam Middleway sharing a story of how her daughter, Shafika Naidoo, who survived the blast because she was in an adjacent building, was booked off as sick for a year and has recently been retrenched. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Rheinmetall is threatening to close the Macassar plant but, Crawford-Browne suggested, the workers should be retrained and equipped for socially productive employment like sustainable energy development.

The immediate environment around the munitions plant, according to Greater Macassar Civic Association and World Beyond War, is contaminated. “We are not sure how much it will cost to clean up after they leave and who will carry the cost. The principle applies that the polluter pays but if they have left the country how do we hold them accountable? We also need to know the extent of the pollution and assess whether the land can be used for housing and other job creation purposes,” Crawford-Browne said.

Thomas Siepelmeyer, a geologist from Germany and a member of the Disarm Rheinmetall campaign, pledged solidarity to the families and activists in their quest to hold the company responsible for the deaths of the workers.

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