MAC: Mines and Communities

Gold miners return to Lesotho to die

Published by MAC on 2005-08-30

Gold miners return to Lesotho to die

30th August 2005

Richard Spoor is a lawyer concerned with occupational injuries and disease. In April 2004 he met with a number of ex-mine workers who had worked in the Free State for Anglo American or Harmony.

All the men had lost their jobs after contracting lung disease attributable to the inhalation of dust in the workplace.

In June 2005 he travelled to Lesotho to see how they and their families were faring - the following is an unedited artilcle on what he found.

A visit to Lesotho

I am a lawyer concerned with occupational injuries and disease. In April 2004 I met with a number of ex mineworkers who had worked in the Free State gold fields for Anglo American or Harmony Gold. All of the men had lost their jobs after contracting lung disease, attributable to the inhalation of dust in the workplace. In June this year I travelled to Lesotho to see for myself how they and their families were faring.

I found 59 year-old Mophete Ralie out in his sorghum field some three kilometers from his house in the village of Ha Leluma, which is about an hour north of Maseru. He was overseeing the loading of his harvest into an ox cart for transport home.

We greeted and I offered him a lift back to his house. He was grateful to be spared the long walk home. Later we sat on chairs in the pale wintry sun and talked.

Mophete had worked for Anglo American, in their gold mines for almost 25 years. He had been the leader of a high-speed tunneling team. As the name suggests these teams drill tunnels through the rock. The members spend much of their time working in dead-ends where ventilation is poor and dust levels are high. After recurrent bouts of tuberculosis he resigned when the mine insisted that he go underground while on treatment for the disease. This is a particular form of madness that only doctors in the employ of the mining companies subscribe to.

He was subsequently diagnosed to be suffering from silicosis. He suffers from severe shortness of breath and is prone to respiratory tract infections. He has no children and his wife left him because he was unable to contribute to the maintenance of the household.

He, his mother and his brother, Sense, who is also an ex mine worker with silicosis, form an interdependent unit. Sense is still well enough to participate in the plowing, harvesting and threshing of their crops. Between Sense and his mother they have also been able to collect a store of firewood, for heating and cooking, sufficient to see them through the harsh winter. Mophete contributes what he can.

Their food stocks are however dangerously low. The crop was damaged by hail and because of his poor health Mophete was obliged to hire help to plough, plant and harvest the crop in his field. Their labour was paid for with a sizeable portion of the crop. What remains is likely not sufficient to last the winter.

The family's survival hinges on Sense's continued good health for without his labour their will be no harvest and no fuel for the fire. The may survive for some time on the charity of the village but this is a poor community and it cannot sustain them. They will slowly starve, become weaker and die.

Mophete can barely manage the walk to his field. While we talk Mophete's wasted body is wracked by bouts of coughing. A gurgling sound marks his laboured breathing. His body is emaciated his only protection against the cold is a old blanket draped across his shoulders. His clothes are frayed and torn.

There are no state pensions in Lesotho; the public health facilities are also hugely under resourced. Neither of the men receives a pension from their old employers. Although Mophete submitted a claim for statutory compensation for his lung condition more than a year ago he has heard nothing from the South African authorities.

Silicosis is a progressive illness and it is only a matter of time before Sense is also too short of breath to work.

It is not at all certain that the three of them will last the winter. A rationed diet of cold thin sorghum porridge, maize meal porridge and cabbage is not optimal for good health. Even if they do make it through the winter it is not clear that they will have the strength to plough, to plant and to harvest the new summer crop. I think that Mophete will die before Christmas, if a bought of pneumonia doesn't kill him sooner. He is too wasted; he is too weak to go on much longer.

I say goodbye.

It was a different story when I arrived at the home of Motseko Mokolo at Koloberg, in the remote Lesotho highlands, about thirty kilometers south of the Katse dam. I learn that he died on Christmas Day 2004 of respiratory failure.

I meet his widow Mamoroesi and his 25 year old son Lefu at their beautifully maintained kraal perched on the edge of a deep mountain valley.

It is with obvious pride that they show me the well constructed stone and thatch rondawels and the cement block house that Motseko had built. Thanks to Lefu's energy and hard work and some good fortune, they have a good harvest this year. I estimate that they have about one and half cubic meters of dry maize in storage. They have sacks of sorghum and kilos of dried cabbage, spinach and beans. Mamoroesi and her daughter in law have prepared a dozen big bottles of peaches in syrup. They have an ample stock of firewood and a mass of fodder has been collected for their cows and flock of sheep and goats.

The family is fortunate to have three cultivated fields, most families have only one and some don't even have that.

Mamoroesi says that Motseko had never been well again after he left Harmony in February 2004. He had worked on the mines for 32 years. She says that he couldn't breathe and that he couldn't work he just lay in the sun until he died.

Motseko's medical records reveal that he had second-degree silicosis which had impaired his lung function by over 50 per cent. He was also partially deaf which is common among mine workers who are routinely exposed to loud noise. Despite statutory compensation claims having been submitted on his behalf three years earlier he had yet to receive the benefit that was due to him.

Motseko was buried in one of his fields in accordance with his wishes.

He was only 54 years old when he died.

Mofu Phomotso's kraal in Ha Bane near Nazareth appeared abandoned when I arrived there in the early afternoon.

I found 73 year old Lebamang Mapuru huddled under a warm blanket in the sun outside a dilapidated wattle and daub structure. He was a widower and had been homeless since his own house had burnt down. He told me that Mofu had died in December 2004 and that his widow and three children had left to Qacha's Nek.

Lebamang and a friend Hans Selamela, both ex mine workers themselves, took me to see Mofu's sister who lived a neighbouring village.

Mofu had worked for Harmony from 1983 until 2000, when he was dismissed after being diagnosed with silicosis by the mine doctor. Mofu's medical records show that the mine doctor recorded that his condition was "terminal". After a perfunctory inquiry into his ability to continue in his employment he was dismissed on grounds of medical incapacity. A claim for statutory compensation was submitted on his behalf.

When he came home he was very sick and he never got better. He couldn't work and he could not support his wife and three children and they all went hungry. He and his wife had a 13 year old son, a daughter of 6 and their youngest child was a boy, aged 3. The eldest boy was sent home from school because his parents could not afford a school uniform.

In 2004 Mofu told his sister that he was going to Johannesburg "to see that justice is done". He said that he was going to collect the statutory compensation that was due to him so that he could buy food and clothes for his family.

He would have travelled to Braamfontein to the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases or to the Office of the Compensation Commissioner for Occupational Diseases, to engage with the opaque and arcane bureaucracy that maladministers the certification and compensation of mine workers with occupational lung diseases.

I shudder to think of the trials that this simple and guileless rural man endured in this quest to collect what was due to him. Sick, hungry and with barely a cent to his name he would have found his way onto Johannesburg's hard, dirty and unfriendly streets. He would have engaged impotently with the mindless and uncaring bureaucracy, perhaps for days, until finally defeated and humiliated he would have turned his weary body towards home with nothing to show for his effort and pain.

He didn't make it back; instead he appeared at the home of his brother in Matatiele he was desperately ill, hungry and exhausted. He was admitted to the Matatiele hospital where he received medical treatment. He was discharged a little while later so that his brother could take him back to his birthplace to die. He died at his parents Kraal in Qacha's Nek a few days later. He was 52 years old.

I enquired of Mofu's sister and of the other women present, what the future held for his widow and the children. She shrugged; the widow would have to take care for herself and the three children. She would have difficulty finding a husband to take her and her 3 children; her husband's family was under no obligation to support her. Mofu had not left her an estate. She had no animals, she had no fields and she had no money. Neighbours might help but the future was bleak. In that hard and unforgiving landscape I had no difficulty believing them.

My last visit was at the home of Secheme Mokheti at Ha Moseoeu, which is also near Nazareth. He was delighted to see me and welcomed me like a brother. He told me I was lucky to find him at home as he had himself only arrived back a couple of weeks earlier.

He said that after I'd last seen him in April 2004 he had stayed on in Welkom, were the mines are situated, and found casual employment as a gardener. He earned R300.00 per month in this way. He had been able to send R200.00 home each month and to live on only R100.00 per month himself. He squatted illegally in a mine hostel and subsisted mainly on porridge. It was the only way he could keep his children fed.

He said that after a year he was tired and decided to come home to be his family. He says his body is swollen and painful and he has difficulty breathing. He says there's no point in attending at the local clinic because they have no medication to give him and they refuse to refer him to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Maseru, where he might receive medication. He visited a private doctor who charged R180.00 for an X-ray and pills sufficient for a month. They make him feel a lot better but he only has enough medication for a few days more. He is fearful that the pain and discomfort will return. He cannot afford another visit.

His two youngest children should be in grades 8 and 10 but they were sent away from the local Roman Catholic school because they have no money to pay school fees and he cannot afford school uniforms.

Secheme's circumstances are grim, his livestock was stolen while he was away on the mine and he has no fields for ploughing, only a small vegetable garden in front of his home. Presently he depends on the charity of his adult children but they are also of limited means, as it is Secheme and his wife Matebello are maintaining three of their grand children.

Secheme worked for Anglo-American as a scraper winch operator from 1983 to 1998. On discharge he was found to be suffering from pneumoconiosis (the generic term for lung diseases caused by dust) and hearing loss. Nineteen months after he was certified with pneumoconiosis, he received a lump sum payment of R27,232.00. This amount lasted him only three months once he had settled the debts that he had accumulated since his discharge from the mine.

Despite the hardships the couples unflustered cement block home resounds with the laughter of children. It is apparent that there is a great deal of love here.

I take leave of the family, having promised to return. If I do, I do not think that Secheme will be there to greet me. I've seen many mine workers with lung disease and I recognise the signs that warn that death is approaching, the wasted body, the tired eyes, the grey pallor and the incessant cough. When I said goodbye to Secheme and his wife, tears well up in my eyes.

These are the circumstances of tens of thousands of miners, men who have spent their lives in the service of the gold mining industry. They arrived as strong young men they left crippled by injury and disease. They have been used and consumed like commodities and when they were all used up they were discarded like pieces of worn out machinery.

Their lives and the lives of their families and children were not improved by their labour on the mines, they were instead impoverished and harmed thereby.

The rural people of Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and the Transkei have borne the real cost of gold mining in South Africa. For more than five generations they have given up their productive men to the mines and have been burdened with the appalling toll of crippled and dying fathers and husbands that have been returned to them. These rural communities' poverty and backwardness are a direct consequence of their engagement with the mines. Gold mining in South Africa has sucked the health, wealth and vitality out of the labour supplying regions. It has impoverished these communities and has caused untold suffering.

None of this is new. It was the mining industries demand for labour that underpinned and was the rationale for grand apartheid. The mining houses knew perfectly well that their mines were killing and maiming workers on an industrial scale. This was an integral part of the conduct of profitable gold mining operations in South Africa

To inflict harm on such a scale on a sustainable basis required that black people be dehumanized so that they could be killed and maimed without evoking outrage. Racist ideologies fomented and given currency by the mining industry helped bring this about. It also required that, in collaboration with the apartheid state, the industry should devise a statutory regime that enabled it to kill and maim hundreds of thousands of mine workers without cost or legal consequence. The Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act and the Workman's Compensation Act which conferred civil immunity on employers, made that possible. A racist, complacent and compliant mine Health and Safety inspectorate and toothless safety legislation did the rest.

This regime of impunity persists to this day. It does so with the tacit approval of the South African government which has consistently failed to call the industry to account or to take steps to end the immunity from civil or criminal sanction that it enjoys.

Although thousands of workers die every year as a direct consequence of their exposure to excessive levels of dust in the mines, no inquest has ever been held into one of these deaths, no formal enquiry has ever been held into the cause of any one of these deaths, no employer has ever been held responsible for one of these deaths and no employer has ever been prosecuted for exposing his workers to harmful quantities of dust in the workplace.

These circumstances make a mockery of our constitution, they demonstrate that as a society we are contemptuous of peoples lives and of their dignity, they represent the triumph of greed and brutality over decency.

The climate of impunity must end, reparations must be made, the industry must be brought to account for the crimes they have committed against the rural people of Southern Africa. Justice demands it.

Richard Spoor is a South African Attorney.

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