Over years, the gold mining industry in South Africa has benefitted from the sweat and blood of rural communities in the Eastern Cape. Hundreds of thousands of gold miners have contracted silicosis underground because the mining houses chose to prioritise profit over people and failed to take simple measures to protect miners from the silica dust that scars lung tissue and gradually reduces their ability to work until they are sent home to die a slow and painful death from silicosis.
Since the Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that Thembekile Mankayi could sue AngloGold Ashanti for damages caused by silicosis, other miners have hoped that the courts would grant them compensation and some form of justice too. Their hopes were strengthened by the ruling of the South Gauteng High Court on 13 May which allowed miners to bring a class action lawsuit against the gold mining industry and amended common law to make it easier for widows and dependents to claim damages too. But the Supreme Court of Appeal has allowed the mining industry to appeal that ruling and challenge the use of a class action lawsuit and the ruling on transmissibility of damages.
In the midst of all the legal proceedings, it is easy to lose sight of the men and women whose lives have been devastated by silicosis. Sonke Gender Justice served as a friend of the court in the class action certification procedures and continues to do research to understand how silicosis affects the women in rural communities who take care of sick mineworkers upon their return home. We are conducting dozens of interviews and holding meetings in the Mnquma, Mbhashe, Tsolo and Qumbu districts.
Here are some of the stories we have been told.
The Jamela family live in Gquphu in Dutywa (in the Mbhashe municipality). Ntshontsholakhe Jamela began working in the mines in December 1973, just after finishing his junior certificate. In 1991 he was declared ‘wabanjwa nguges’, which means he failed his fitness medical test.
His wife, Nomziwonke Jamela, says: “The sad part is that for the many, many years he toiled in the mines he only came back with a R68,000 lump sum, the very same money that we now need for his care”.
Today Jamela’s family depends on a government social grant. And often they have to consult a private doctor as the pain from his severe chest infection becomes unbearable, but the costs of these consultations are way beyond their means. When these pains come, his only prayer is to die because he can’t cope. “The mine has finished him and he can die anytime”, says Nomziwonke Jamela.
Mhlawenkosi Khethiwe and his family are from Chafutweni in Mnquma. He started working at the mines in 1970 when he was still a young man. By 1998 he had become very sick suffering from silicosis and his wife had to stop her casual job to start looking after him.
They have to walk a long way to the healthcare centre in Gwadana in Dutywa. Sometimes they use the local public transport but it is expensive. Once they walked to the clinic because the previous night Khethiwe had not been able to sleep due to severe chest pains, but by the time they arrived, the medication they needed was out of stock.
“I cried and my worry was to think of the distance back home without any relief. On our way to the clinic, I had high hopes for the medication and could hide the pains from my wife”, says Khethiwe. His wife Nokwakha has to be up in the early hours of the morning, is often the last to go to bed and at times is also up in the middle of the night to care for him. Sometimes their daughter has to be absent from school to look after him too. Their daughter’s dream of going to university was shattered because they couldn’t afford it, though Khethiwe worked his entire life at the mines.
Ndoda Mbali* from Lower Ngcolokani in Qumbu in Mhlontlo municipality started working on the mines in 1972. He worked at West Driefontein in Carletonville until 2012, when, like many other mineworkers, he had to stop working underground because of ill health. He was given lighter work and ultimately sent back home.
He is now married for a second time but struggles to meet his wife’s sexual needs because of conditions as a result of from silicosis. He says he has even thought of getting someone else to do so in order to keep his family together. His wife says her nights are very lonely and all she does is care for her husband. She has to go around their neighbourhood to borrow money for transport and doctors’ costs and she says her image and dignity have diminished long ago. She is known in her village for begging.
In all the sites that we visited, community members expressed their concern about the plight of former mineworkers who die lonely and in poverty. The health care centres in their villages are not providing sufficient medical care. As one Sonke team member said: “it’s always ayikho”, meaning: medication not available.
The gold mining industry has a responsibility to give back to the communities from which they recruited their workforce and whose lives they have harmed.