In a bumpy backstreet in Mthatha stands the offices of the ex-mineworkers’ union, founded in 1987.
There are seven stacks of dusty files in one corner, each the height of an adult, containing compensation applications and other paperwork for each of the union’s members in the Eastern Cape.
“About 18 000 members,” says Zanele Mbuyisa, a member of the ex-mineworkers’ legal team, who accompanied us from Johannesburg.
Nombulelo Matu corrects her gently: ’18 563” — each member is valued as an individual here — before adding apologetically: “We don’t have a filing cabinet.”
Matu is the union’s secretary. Although not an ex-mineworker, she has made their cause her own and works for free: “The Lord sees me and one day he is going to bless me for it.”
Over a two-litre bottle of Sprite served in polystyrene cups, Matu relates the union’s struggle to ensure that its members receive all their retirement benefits and can access government’s compensation system if they are sick.
On one wall a photograph of the union’s committee is pasted beneath the words: “‘For with God nothing shall be impossible.’ Luka 1:37.”
“I want to speak in Xhosa,” Matu says, “because when I speak about this thing there is an anger and pain in my heart and I just want to get it all out.”
The former mineworkers demonstrated once at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 2006 and twice outside Parliament in Cape Town last year. On each occasion they were sent home with empty promises.
Hundreds of exasperated ex-mineworkers travelled 1 000km from Mthatha to Cape Town, where they first marched illegally to the National Assembly, then camped for two weeks in their buses and taxis at a zoo in the winelands awaiting police permission to march again.
While Matu is talking, the first of the 18 ex-mineworkers, who have been selected as test cases in a damages claim against Anglo American, arrives for his legal consultation with Mbuyisa.
Wilson Mafolwana is claiming R618 100 from Anglo American South Africa for future medical expenses as well as pain and suffering.
Anglo American has indicated that though it sympathises with miners who have contracted silicosis it will defend its actions against Mafolwana and the other claimants.
Although the taxi rank is just across the street Mafolwana is out of breath after climbing a single flight of stairs. His breath is hollow and rasping, like the sound of a child blowing up a party balloon.
In time the others arrive. They are broken-looking men with slow, shuffling walks.
“I guess I have a soft spot for them,” Mbuyisa says, “I mean, from birth they’ve had a tough life and now they’re sick because of it.”
With her lime-green fingernails and penchant for Dunhill Fine Cuts, Mbuyisa seems a world apart from her clients. But she’s worked on this case for seven years now, spending weeks at a time interviewing clients deep inside the country’s most remote rural areas.
After Mbuyisa has updated her clients about the progress of their case we get in the car with Mafolwana and make the long drive to Lusikisiki.
Set in a landscape of rolling hills, pastel-coloured houses and tarmac-friendly livestock, Lusikisiki is an idyllic town 30km north of Port St Johns. But its name reveals something of the true state of the province and many of its inhabitants. People like Mafolwana are sick. Really sick.
The Mafolwanas live a short way out of town, down a winding dirt road flanked by fields of tall green maize. The zinc roof of their modest home is held down by bricks, tyres and the odd wooden log.
Mafolwana introduces us to his wife of 37 years, Frances, and his two stocky sons, Zuko and Thembela.
Seeing them next to the shrunken figure of their father, one can imagine the then-Mafolwana — barrel-chested and oozing confidence — heading off to the mines for the first time in 1972.
Sixty-two-year-old Mafolwana is still handsome, with a firm jaw and a debonair moustache, but his brow is furrowed with worry.
With his wife at his side, Mafolwana tells us about life underground in the President Steyn gold mine and how it made him sick.
During his eight days’ training, Mafolwana was told to expect hot and dusty conditions underground. But nothing could prepare him for the first time: “I was very scared. The rocks above my head were cracking.”
Mafolwana had good reason to be afraid — a rock fall later broke his ankle and he walks with a slight limp.
He says he was told about ventilation masks during training, but was not given one underground, unless health inspectors came to the mine.
The dust was particularly severe near the rockfaces where drilling took place, but settled all over. “From the lift down to the waiting place there was dust; there was dust everywhere,” he says.
Life as a miner began with one of the dustiest jobs — shovelling rock. It was a job reserved for the black mineworkers: “The white miner would come and mark where the driller can drill, but then he would go away. He never did any shovelling.”
After two months Mafolwana was promoted to locomotive driver and later to winch driver. The work was still dusty, since it involved tipping large quantities of rock into the mine carts. He must have been good at his job because, within three years, he was appointed a team leader. “I liked my job,” Mafolwana says with a smile, “every time I was promoted I got a pay rise.”
Then in 1989 — 17 years after he first arrived at the mine — Mafolwana began to have trouble breathing.
He was sent to the Ernest Oppenheimer Hospital in Welkom where he was X-rayed and examined. “The doctor then left me to a clerk, who told me I had miner’s sickness, but didn’t explain what it was. I was told I’d be given treatment, but I continued working.”
With children to educate, Mafolwana had no choice.
He retired in 1994, when his shortness of breath had become noticeably worse. Now this proud man, accustomed to supporting his wife and children financially, found he could no longer help them with the simplest manual chores around the house, garden and maize field.
He was certified silicotic a few years later and given R44 000 in compensation. “Too little,” Mafolwana says: “I can’t even afford some- one to help my wife in the fields.
“I do regret going to the mine because I can’t do the things I used to, but I don’t regret it because I needed the money.”
Frances Mafolwana says nothing, but reaches over to rub her husband’s chest gently with one hand.
Like most silicosis sufferers Mafolwana was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis.
He has finished his treatment, but says something still isn’t right: “My chest still feels tight, especially in the mornings.”
Luckily he hasn’t passed TB on to his family. “If they don’t have it by now, then I don’t think they will.”
In the thin light of dawn I wake to the sound of Mafolwana padding about the house, breathing hoarsely, as he will do every morning for the rest of his life.
This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.