Public inquiry into the 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

Peace activist and country coordinator for World Beyond War, Terry Crawford- Browne, kept a diary of the inquiry into the explosion that happened in September 2018 at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition. These are his notes.

Mphumzi Dyulete, Inspector, Department of Labour, Chairperson
Advocate Dennis Hellens, Weber Wentzl representing RDM
Advocate Winston Erasmus representing the families of the deceased

Day One of the inquiry

About 40 people were present in the Old Civic Hall, Macassar, Somerset West. The inquiry into the deadly explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munitions plant on 3 September 2018 began at 10am and closed at 3pm. Only three witnesses were called.

Thembi Ganda, Chief Officer, RDM. Ms Ganda referred to a 28-page internal investigation signed by R. Keiser, part of which reads as follows: “Since there were no survivors, we will never be 100% sure what happened”. The conclusion reached was “a decision was made without reference to management on the mix of ingredients. Extra graphite was added. This led to an electric discharge causing the explosion, which can be ascribed to “human error”.

Fernando Jacobs and Hilton Anthony, RDM. Both men were operators on the morning shift at the M16 unit, and reported to Stephen Isaacs (the supervisor) and Nico Samuels (the team leader). Both Isaacs and Samuels were killed in the explosion, about 15 minutes after Jacobs and Anthony had left the building at 15:18 for the change to the afternoon shift. Both testimonies described the procedures for delivery and mixing of the chemicals. Questioning by advocate Hellens left the impression that RDM’s intention was to blame Samuels for the explosion, he having deviated from set-down procedures. Under questioning by advocate Erasmus, Anthony revealed, however, that a newly replaced valve was not fitting properly to one of the machines.

Day two of the inquiry

The first four witnesses who testified were trainee operators. The emphasis of the questioning was on RDM’s thorough training of casual workers, who are designated as trainees by the compulsory wearing of a red arm bands and work under the instructions of team leaders, such as Stephen Isaacs.  

One of the four was Gavin Wells, a truck driver who delivers explosives and propellants. Building licenses stipulate what quantities of explosives can be trucked to be stored in buildings, and to which units what quantities should be delivered. Did he know Nico Samuels and was he experienced? “Yes,” replied Wells, “he knew what he was doing!” 

In response to a question by Mphumzi Dyulete, a witness confirmed he wears a trainee red arm band despite having worked at RDM for 21 years. He testified that he has been the safety training officer since 2003/2004. Trainees cannot work alone and must work under supervision. The trainees need an 80% pass rate to graduate from the red arm band, with remedial training then being given to the failed 20%. For the afternoon shift on 3 September 2018, Nico Samuels (supervisor) and Stephen Isaacs (team leader) were qualified. The other six men who were also killed were still red band trainees.

Erasmus: If you are the training officer, must you also know the blending process? Reply: “I am not the technical training officer… Technical training is the responsibility of the supervisor to provide.”

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Erasmus: There is just one qualified person at N16, is that correct? Reply: Yes. You don’t need everyone to be fully qualified. Isaacs can’t, for example, clean the bin.

Erasmus: Why are people who are not yet qualified working with explosive materials? Which production order was the batch in N16 being prepared for? Reply: Only management knows that.

An engineer testified that she worked in the process engineering department, and had been employed six years at Denel. Her project as an engineer was to improve the process and capital projects on the technical side by development of the 4CAM system.

Hellens: What is the 4CAM project? Reply: It is a manufacturing execution system to select improved productivity and to track the effectiveness of the manufacturing execution system. 
– In September 2018, was the system being implemented at N16? Reply: Each operator has a barcode and scans a page to log specific equipment. If a machine breaks down, this would track the history of the machine.

Hellens: The Department of Labour wants to know who logged in on 3 September 2018? Reply: Nobody logged in on that day – perhaps the fibre at N16 was not yet fully installed, which is necessary to log in. The system is unable to provide information about the operators on 3 September 2018 because they had not logged in. The system has nothing to do with safety, but is about the functionality of a machine. The 4CAM project was dropped later, during 2019. 

Hellens: What was the involvement at N16 in implementing a system as a production tool and to make an assessment? Reply: N16 did not log in that day, so it is possible there was a defect that was not recorded on 3 September 2018. We trained supervisors, but I cannot confirm whether N16 was included. The DAILY is the unit record over any given day, including reports on any defective equipment.

Erasmus: The 4CAM system shows what equipment is used on a given day. Do you have records of previous N16 rejects before 4CAM that were recorded on DAILY? Where are the DAILY records stored? Reply: I don’t know.

Team of lawyers representing RDM at the Inquiry earlier this week. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Mustafa Salie: Responsible for the maintenance of compressors, lights and pressure regulators. “I report to the factory management, and 70 people report to me. The procedures in place in 2018 regarding replacement of equipment was first make sure that the building is cleared of explosives. When equipment is modified, includes changing parts, it requires a work permit and modification number. The plant manager can initiative a work permit process.

Hellens: On 31 August 2018, the butterfly valve on the blender in N16 was changed to a NewCon valve. Are you familiar with the change from Butterfly to NewCon valve. Are you familiar with the difference? Reply: The NewCon valve operates by simply opening operationally, and is also used elsewhere at RDM. The Butterfly valve has wings that open against the blend. People reporting to me were involved in changing the valve though I, personally, was not. I could not interfere without a job card. One of my fitters did the actual fitting,

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Hellens: Did you speak to Isaacs on 31 August or 3 September? Reply: No.

Hellens: Did the N16 blender work on 31 August? Reply: The job card verified the modification was completed. The valve is made of stainless steel as well as a non-static material.

Hellens: Should that valve have been earthed or non-earthed? Reply: I do not know. 

Hellens: The stainless steel valve was bolted to another metal, aluminium, which is conductive. Given the importance of earthing, would there not have been a problem here? Reply: No.

Dyulete: What are your qualifications? Reply: Diploma in Engineering plus diploma in Business Engineering.

Dyulete: Where are the valves accessed? Reply: They are bought off-the-shelf. 

Dyulete: The new valve was bigger than the old one and would have had a greater weight. Was any electrician present? Reply: There was no need for an electrician.

Dyulete: Was the wire tested? Reply: I do not know.

Erasmus: Which equipment is subject to wear and tear? Reply: Every valve used daily is subject to wear and tear. 

Erasmus: How often should the drum be changed? The gearbox has an electric motor and is also subject to wear and tear. What is their life span? Reply: I am not the person normally responsible for maintenance. I am not in a position to know what materials could impact negatively.

Erasmus: Was the modified equipment tested on 31 August. Reply: Yes, when the job was completed.

Erasmus: Was there any production over the weekend? Reply: I don’t know.

Mphumzi Dyulete, the chairperson of the inquiry and inspector with the Department of Employment and Labour. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Day three of the Inquiry

Four witnesses testified this morning about the design, decisions and installation around the NewCon valve imported from England to replace the butterfly valve in the N16 blending bin. Their respective testimonies exposed gross incompetence and inconsistencies around the decision to replace the butterfly valve, its installation and the modifications applied when it did not fit properly.

Supervisor Nico Samuels had anxiously told his family during the weekend before the Monday explosion that the valve did not fit properly, and that he was being overridden by management. Although of little consolation to the families of the deceased, today’s testimonies completely vindicated Samuels, who just on Monday was being scapegoated by RDM management for the explosion.

After the testimonies of the four witnesses, legal teams conferred with the presiding officer. It was then announced at noon that instead of five days as scheduled for this week, the inquiry would adjourn until 5-9 July 2021 when advocate Erasmus will represent the families of the deceased.

Terry Crawford-Browne is the country co-ordinator in South Africa for World Beyond War, a global movement to end all wars.

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