Ongoing investigations into cause of fire at Denel plant

The latest fire at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition plant in Macassar, Somerset West, restarted worries about safety of workers at the plant, says Macassar community leader, Rhoda Bazier.

A fire at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) facility rocked the community of Macassar and surrounding areas on Sunday October 30.

The explosive fire at about 11pm on Sunday night at the plant in Somerset West, was a cause of great panic and concern on social media platforms.

Local residents shared various shocking images and videos of the explosion, which lit up skies across the Helderberg basin and surrounds with a glaring, orange flame.

In September 2018 residents were left reeling after an explosion at the same plant killed eight RDM workers.

The latest explosion comes after the restart of the Section 32 inquiry launched by the Department of Labour, on Monday October 18. This inquiry is tasked with investigating the deadly 2018 incident.

In a statement issued after the explosion, Jan-Patrick Helmsen, CEO of RDM, said no injuries or casualties were reported in the latest incident and the cause of the fire has not yet been established.

Mr Helmsen said both internal and external investigations are continuing.

According to him, both the South African Police Services and the Department of Employment and Labour officials have been on the site to investigate, but no preliminary findings have been disclosed or shared with RDM yet.

The company has following the fire, also launched its own investigation. “While we have not yet been granted access to the N86 building by the SAPS, we are investigating and sourcing whatever information we can in the interim,” he said.

He committed to sharing any updates on the progression of the investigation.

The plant is currently at the receiving end of community anger and opposition concerning its location in Macassar. Community members, members of the SACP, Cosatu, ANC, Greater Macassar Civic Association and family members of the 2018 victims, voiced this opposition in a protest held outside the plant on Friday October 28, this after recent revelations in the department’s inquiry about the building’s safety.

Community leader and deputy chairperson of the Greater Macassar Association, Rhoda Bazier who participated in the protest, said: “This explosion took us back to that fateful day in 2018 when the doors of the homes of residents of informal settlements were blown off, and the homes of those residents who were at work were broken into by thieves.

“So besides being a reminder of the criminal element of that day, it also causes a lot of health hazards and it opens up the wounds of the loved ones of the victims who have not yet gained closure.”

RDM has, after Sunday’s explosion, made free counselling available to the families of the 2018 victims and any RDM staff who need it. “We are acutely aware that this incident has brought back painful memories for the families of those who passed away in 2018,” Mr Helmsen said.

Ms Bazier said: “We want Rheinmetall’s manufacturing licence to be reviewed and the other issue for us is ensuring the safety of workers. Currently in terms of safety and security for workers there is no safety.

“In the inquiry engineers clearly stated the buildings of the plant is not safe enough to protect workers in the event of explosion.”

But, RDM maintains its adherence and compliance to safety regulations, both local and international. “While we do not know the cause of what happened on Sunday, we can assure residents that we adhere to the strictest South African safety regulations and international standards, based on those of Europe and the United States.

“We comply with and in some cases exceed the safety standards and records of most countries in the Asian region and for a company of our size and complexity, we have for some years now performed better than the international norm,” Mr Helmsen said.

But, Ms Bazier says the community is not reassured and demand explanations concerning this latest incident. “In 2018, N16 exploded and eight people died, this time N86 exploded, we can’t understand how it ignited on its own. Rheinmetall must come and explain this to us, we seriously demand clarity on what happened.”

She said due to the hazardous nature of explosives being made at the plant, their call is for the manufacturing of explosives at Rheinmetall Macassar to be permanently stopped.

Bolander sent enquiries to the Department of Employment and Labour and the South African Police Services about the status of investigations. They have not yet responded, but their feedback will be shared once received.