/ 3 May 2021

Silicosis: ‘Can they just pay me before I die?’

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Bangumzi Balakisi, 67, from Pikoli village in Peddie worked as a gold miner in Randfontein between 1974 and 1999. He now suffers from tuberculosis and silicosis, which he contracted at work. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)

In May 2018, five mining groups agreed to pay R5 billion to settle a class-action suit involving thousands of mineworkers who contracted tuberculosis (TB) and silicosis at work. The high court in Johannesburg approved this settlement in 2019. But two years later, the trust set up to administer the compensation process still hasn’t paid them. 

According to the Justice For Miners campaign, fewer than 10 claimants have been paid by the Tshiamiso Trust so far. There remains a backlog of more than 100 000 unprocessed claims from sick miners. The trust can only settle these claims once the Medical Bureau of Occupational Diseases (MBOD) has processed them in the statutory compensation system.

“The wait since May 2018, and since the establishment of the trust in February 2020, has been a source of frustration for our prospective claimants, many of whom are old and ill,” May Hermanus, chairperson of the Tshiamiso Trust’s board of trustees, said in a statement. “Where they have passed away, the wait has been the ordeal of their dependants. The trustees and the management of Tshiamiso are painfully aware of this.” 

Such an admission, without any action, means nothing to someone like Nogcinikhaya Kwili, a 53-year-old widow from Cala in the Eastern Cape. “My husband contracted TB in 1997 while working for Harmony Gold mine. Since then, he never became better. Instead, he was becoming worse each day. In 2005 the mine retrenched him because he was no longer fit to work underground,” Kwili said. 

“He took his TB medication but never got better. We did not know anything about silicosis till we went to Groote Schuur Hospital in 2012; that is where we were told he has silicosis. We were told to seek legal advice so that my husband can get his compensation.”

That compensation is through the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act of 1993, which provides for compensation for occupational injuries or diseases sustained or contracted by employees in the course of their employment, or for death resulting from such injuries or diseases.

“The MBOD has not reported to Parliament for many years and is accused of corruption. Applying for compensation governed by the ODMWA Act [Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act] is also very bureaucratic and onerous on the claimant, who often has already returned to rural areas or back to the migrant labourer’s country,” said Catherine Meyburgh, who works with the Justice For Miners campaign.

“Dependants whose loved ones have passed away are not aware that if their family member worked [in] South African mines, it is required that the body parts are sent to the NIOH [National Institute for Occupational Health] for the autopsy to diagnose occupation diseases, which would ensure the dependants are compensated [with costs covered by the South African government].”

Meyburgh says one of the problems is that the potential claimants are often unaware of their right to compensation for occupational diseases. The Justice For Miners campaign is calling for the government to take part in facilitating the paying of both statutory compensation and the Tshiamiso Trust claims.

The ‘thank you’ we get 

Kwili’s husband, Khayalethu Kwili, passed away in 2014 while still trying to get compensation from Harmony Gold. “Two years after the passing of my husband, I did follow up on his compensation. I tried to get help from the Tshiamiso Trust but I was told that my husband’s compensation is with another trust called Qhubeka.”

Kwili then contacted Qhubeka. “I was told that they have tried locating me without success, therefore the money has lapsed. My husband dug gold for 25 years making the economy of this country better, and this is the ‘thank you’ we get. He is no more, he died because of the mine sickness. The kids and I are left with no one taking care of us.”

The Qhubeka Trust had not commented by the time of publishing.

Mzawubalekwa Diya, 62, from Bizana in the Eastern Cape, is one of the ex-miners still waiting for compensation. He worked at Sibanye-Stillwater for 27 years. “In the late ‘80s I started coughing blood. I was taken to the mine hospital [and] the doctor said I have nothing, I can continue working,” he said.

Diya says he was retrenched in 2005 because the government said all those who had worked at the mines for over 20 years must be retrenched. 

“Richard Spoor [Attorneys] took me to the doctor in 2012. I was told that my lungs are damaged by the silica dust at the mine in a way that only one lung is functioning. It has been a long time. We have been going up and down with interviews and doctor’s appointments but the money is not coming,” said Diya.

“I can’t afford to do anything. The trust is very slow and they must understand that the money in their bank account is not theirs, this is the money we worked hard for as South African miners. Can they just pay me before I die?”

Bangumzi Balakisi, 67, had worked for different gold mines since 1974 and was retrenched in 1999 by Randfontein mine because of silicosis and TB. Balakisi said his life quickly changed when he left work and could only claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

“I was no longer able to feed my children. I was sick, home with nothing,” he said. “I had to sell my livestock to take my children to school, but we remained hungry because the only money I made from selling livestock was specifically for my children’s college fees.”

Balakisi has registered with the Tshiamiso Trust, but he doesn’t know when he will get his compensation.

“This whole thing is draining me all these years. I run from one place to another seeing doctors, signing papers all the time, but the money is not coming through,” he said.

Miners don’t want Teba

The Tshiamiso Trust has negotiated a partnership agreement with Teba Limited, a private company that recruits miners from neighbouring countries, to document applicants’ particulars and facilitate their payments. Mineworkers are, however, not in favour of this decision. They say Teba abandoned them a long time ago and never served them well in the past, and accuse the company of many cases of fraud.

“Tshiamiso Trust must end their working relationship with Teba,” said Diya. “This organisation is with the mines that we are fighting against. So, how does the Tshiamiso Trust work with them regarding our claims?”

The Justice For Miners campaign is also against the trust’s partnership with Teba, saying it must instead use paralegals and the community-based organisations that were instrumental in signing up miners to the class-action litigation. 

But Monako Dibetle, communications manager of the trust, defended the partnership. “Engaging with Teba, which has a single management structure, is for Tshiamiso far more efficient than would be the case dealing with multiple organisations which may lack the infrastructure Teba has,” he said. “Lodgement centres in the future will not be only limited to Teba.”

Another organisation the Justice For Miners campaign objects to is the Aurum Institute, but the trust won’t back down from this partnership either. Dibetle said Aurum has “experience throughout mining areas and areas where ex-miners are to be found. Furthermore, it has the existing technological infrastructure needed to carry out BME [benefit medical examination] services and communicate patient findings.

“So they, like Teba, were a very strong candidate to carry out the work needed to quickly and efficiently allow Tshiamiso’s claims system to be launched. BME facilities in the future will not only be limited to Aurum.” 

This article was first published on New Frame