Families of slain Rheinmetall workers say the company is responsible

The inquiry into the causes of the September 2018 explosion at the RDM plant has been adjourned due to the unavailability of witnesses. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The explosion at the munitions plant in Macassar in the Western Cape took place in September 2018, taking the lives of eight workers and injuring one other.

Families of the eight workers that were killed in an explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) plant in September 2018 say that testimonies by workers in the inquiry investigating the accident point to the company as responsible. The N16 building at the Somerset plant was destroyed as well as the immediate surrounding blast wall. The families and the community demanded an inquiry into what happened as they felt that justice had to be served. Chaired by Mphumzi Dyulete, an inspector from the Department of Employment and Labour, the inquiry was supposed to run until Friday but due to the unavailability of witnesses it was adjourned until July.

Malcolm David, whose son Triston died in the explosion, said that he was happy that the inquiry has started and that witness testimonies have made clear that the company is to be blamed for the explosion. “I’m happy that the inquiry has started because my son and his colleagues were blamed for the explosion and the testimonies of the workers fingers the company and everyone can see that management did not do the work… The procedures, the safety and the security were not done accordingly. There were no qualified people who oversaw the whole thing. The workers were pushed to the deep end,” said David.

His words were echoed by widow Laurencia Samuels, whose husband was blamed for using his vehicle to transport explosives, said that she knew from the beginning that her husband wasn’t responsible for what happened because he was always careful and safety came first to him. “I got so emotional when one engineer from the company said that the plan was all on the paper, the drawings. Can the drawing now explain to my two babies who are now 10 and 13 that they lost their father due to a drawing? The drawing said that there was no need for testing, the drawing said there was no need for inspection,” said Samuels.

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

South African coordinator for World Beyond War, Terry Crawford-Browne, said that from the three days that they have been part of the inquiry, the supervisor, Nico Samuels, who the company was blaming for what happened, had been vindicated. “Initially, Rheinmetall seemed to be putting blame on Nico Samuels and I have been working with his mother and widow and he told them a weekend before the explosion that he was very anxious because a part that was being installed into a machine was not fitting properly and he was being over-ruled by management insisting that they should proceed. Then on Monday there was an explosion and he and the team leader and operators, who were wearing red armbands to signify that they were still trainees, they were all killed. So it is vindication for Nico Samuels who they were trying to blame. The testimonies have shown that the valve they put on was defective,” said Crawford-Browne.

When Elitsha arrived on day three of the Inquiry, two witnesses were testifying about the design, decisions and installation of the ‘NewCon valve’ to replace the ‘butterfly valve’ in the N16 blending bin. Brent Bennet, the maintenance supervisor, told the inquiry that he was supposed to be involved but couldn’t because of workload. Pressed for clarity around work pressure by Dyulete, Bennet said that there was a pressure to replace the valve as the management wanted to continue with production. He said that they tested the new valve on the Monday after its installation, the same day as the explosion.

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Another worker, Vernon Johannes, who has worked as a fitter since 2014, told the inquiry that he had never fitted that kind of valve before. Before fitting the valve, he said that one of the nuts of the valve felt lose but he tightened it. Johannes said that he fitted the valve without the presence of an electrician to check that he was doing it correctly.

Archive photo: Families and community members placed flowers at the entrance to the Rheinmetall Denel Munition plant where eight workers were killed.

Earlier this week, the inquiry learned how workers with 21 years of experience were still wearing the red armbands of trainees. “They employ workers through labour brokers and there was one worker who testified that he has been a red band for 21 years. What kind of an organisation is this? We need to create more and better jobs than making ammunition for export to Saudi Arabia to kill people in Yemen,” said Crawford-Browne.

Dyulete, the chairperson of the inquiry, said that 13 witnesses had so far testified and that he is happy with the proceedings so far. The inquiry is scheduled to sit again on 5 July.

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