Black rural women: Carrying the burden of the gold mining industry’s neglect

The mining industry contributes significantly to the hardship experienced by black women in rural areas of South Africa. For decades, mining houses have drawn in young black men for labour, only for many to return home sick, with little to show for years spent toiling underground. Those who have contracted the preventable but incurable lung disease, silicosis, come home to die a slow and painful death. It is then the women in rural communities who are left to provide support and care under the most adverse conditions.

As part of its efforts to support pending litigation against the mining industry to secure long overdue compensation to mineworkers who contracted silicosis and for the women who took care of them, Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) has been conducting research in the rural Eastern Cape. The research is making visible how the gold mining industry’s failure to prevent silicosis has forced rural black women further into the margins of society.

Silicosis: A preventative disease

Silicosis is a degenerative and incurable lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust, which is produced when mining gold. Characterised by scarring of the lungs, which produces shortness of breath and fever, it first came to the attention of the gold mining industry over one hundred years ago when it affected minority white miners who formed part of the work force.

New safety standards were then developed that led to South Africa’s mines gaining recognition for these occupational safety reforms. However, the scale of the pandemic as it has affected black miners has been minimised and ignored.

In recent years, data into the manifestation of silicosis among black mineworkers has become more widely available. The Pathology Automation System, an electronic database of approximately 100?000 autopsies of deceased miners dating back to 1975, is one example. Other research, including more recently Jock McCulloch’s critical study titled South Africa’s Gold Mines and the Politics of Silicosis, made the point that by 1911 black mineworkers were more at risk than their white counterparts, given the racialised division of labour that saw white workers occupy supervisory roles while black men remained underground doing manual work.

Gold mining houses have not taken necessary precautions to prevent miners from inhaling this toxic dust. A 2007 Global Occupational Health Network report said: “It is as simple as this; if occupational exposure to dust is avoided silicosis will cease to occur.” The dust levels miners are exposed to in South Africa are four times higher than those permitted in Europe and North America. With South Africa’s gold mines being the most profitable in the world, it appears that profits are more important than the preservation of life.

There are several ongoing battles being fought to hold the gold mining industry to account for their negligence. The Legal Resources Centre, Richard Spoor Attorneys and Abrahams Kiewitz are representing 56 applicants in a class action lawsuit where current and former mineworkers and surviving dependants of mineworkers who died from the disease are demanding their right to compensation for silicosis and TB contracted in mines. The case will be heard in the South Gauteng High court in October 2015.

Uncovering the gender impact of silicosis

While the spotlight has been on the gold mining industry’s violation of miners’ health rights, and the dismal levels of compensation for the occupational diseases they have suffered, little attention has been paid to how this has impacted on women and girls. When miners start to show symptoms of silicosis and are unable to work, they lose their jobs and return to their rural homes. Sonke Gender Justice has undertaken research in the Eastern Cape – home to a majority of mineworkers – to explore the gendered impact of silicosis and how this disease is affecting communities. The preliminary findings are alarming.

In June 2015, Sonke researchers visited rural areas located in the Mbhashe and Mhlontlo municipal areas of the Eastern Cape to conduct in-depth interviews with carers, all women, who are looking after former mineworkers suffering from silicosis.

Zinhle Nkosi, one of the researchers on the team explained: “There are days when they have to care for their partners the whole day, especially in June when chest problems become worse because of the cold. They have to bath and feed them and help them to sit as most of them don’t have proper medication. They live on pain pills.”

Care work is physically and emotionally taxing work. Women who were interviewed suffer from depression, hypertension and diabetes mostly due to stress and poor diet. Patrick Godana, who is also part of Sonke’s research team says: “The poverty that these women endure is unbearable. Women are faced with the burden of care but also the direct impact of extreme poverty. When we visited their homes there was no smell of what was cooked in the morning or the previous evening. It’s just dry”.

With women and girls deemed responsible for cooking, cleaning and looking after sick people and the elderly, they lose the time that could be used to access education and work opportunities. They remain locked in poverty with scarcely any time for self-development.