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Silicosis: Too late for some as gold mines pay up

Ziyanda Manjati, as she so often does, was calling to inform a former mineworker living in the rural Eastern Cape about a meeting. The family informed her that the man had died that very morning.

“Yooh!” Manjati exclaims from her office in Main Street, Port St Johns, when asked how many of her clients have died during her six years working on the project to sign up former mineworkers for the silicosis class action. She works as a project co-ordinator for lawyer Richard Spoor in the Eastern Cape town. For the past six years she has travelled around the province to encourage former mineworkers and their dependents to sign up for the class action brought by Spoor against 29 mining companies in 2001.

During that time, she reckons at least 50 of the people she has registered have died. The number of silicosis deaths since 1965 is estimated to be in the thousands.

Added to the emotional strain of her job is her daily encounter with the abject poverty and destitution in which most of these men and their families live.

“Most of them have no [proper] houses. I could say 100% of them live in poverty,” she says.

In many cases, she found families with no food and no hope, just waiting and hoping for the case to be finalised. Many of the men are unable to do any duties that require physical exertion because of their poor health. As a result, women and widows are left to work the land to sustain their families.

READ MORE: Suffering litigants rejoice over mining houses’ R5-billion silicosis settlement

Manjati’s work has included making presentations to traditional councils, municipal councillors and other local structures to facilitate the process of informing and gathering former mineworkers to sign up for the class action.

It was no easy task, made even more difficult by cases of swindlers who had taken advantage of the former mineworkers under the guise of helping them to claim their monies from their former employers, only to disappear with their cash.

There were also other pressing issues, such as the medical records of the former mineworkers, many of whom are illiterate or have low levels of formal education.

“Many of them did not undergo exit medical exams. Many of the mineworkers were not given their medical records when they left the mines. [I would say] only about 10% of them had their records,” she says.

This has made the work of the lawyers even more difficult because, to qualify for a payout, the former workers need to prove that they already suffered from silicosis or tuberculosis when they left the mines. Added to this is the fact that many of the men died in their homes or in rural clinics. Their families did not request postmortems be conducted. As a result, many were simply classified as having died of natural causes.

Manjati’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the announcement of the settlement last week. Desperate former mineworkers are calling every other minute to ask when they will be paid out. Dependents and destitute widows are inquiring about the next step. Former mineworkers who had not been part of the litigation are calling to find out whether they can still sign up and how.

According to the settlement, the former mineworkers and their beneficiaries are likely to receive payouts of between R70 000 and R500 000, depending on which of the 10 classes of claimants they fall under. The payments will be made through the Tshiamo Trust.

According to the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act, workers diagnosed with first-degree silicosis should be paid out R63 100, and R140 506 for second-degree silicosis. But according to the settlement, the claimants will be paid close to R7 000 more than the amounts stipulated in the statutes.

The biggest payout, at R500 000, will go to those with class-four silicosis — a “defined special aggravated medical condition”.

Beneficiaries of deceased mineworkers who died either from silicosis or TB stand to get amounts ranging between R50 000 and R100 000.

The mining companies said they will make an initial contribution of R1.4-billion for the first two years of benefit payments and that the aggregate amount for the payments will be about R5-billion.

To qualify, former mineworkers must have worked for more than 10 years on a gold mine. Those who do not have medical records must be medically tested to determine the state of their illness. The parties’ statement said: “There is no limit on the number of potential claimants. Any claimant who has a qualifying claim will receive the compensation due to him or her during the lifetime of the trust. Individuals will be entitled to opt out if they do not wish to participate in the settlement.”

The lawyers brought the case against 29 mining companies on the grounds that they had neglected their constitutional duties to offer effective protective equipment and conditions for workers who, as a result, contracted silicosis.

More work awaits Manjati and her colleagues who must now process thousands of claims and close a grim chapter in South Africa’s gold mining history. — Mukurukuru Media

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Lucas Ledwaba
Lucas Ledwaba
Journalist and author of Broke & Broken - The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa.

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