IN this edition, we run a story in which the Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA) has rung alarm bells over the high number of occupation-related illnesses and fatalities among Basotho formerly working in South African mines.
The MDA is the development wing of South Africa’s National Union Mineworkers and, among other things, facilitates and implements job creating and self-employment opportunities for ex-mineworkers and their communities.
Among the occupation-related ailments some of the ex-miners contracted is the fatal lung disease silicosis and Tuberculosis (TB) as they were working underground. Some of the miners were also vulnerable to asbestosis; a chronic inflammatory and scarring disease affecting the tissue of the lungs.
For decades, tens of thousands of Basotho flocked to South Africa for employment opportunities in the gold mines. However, the mining companies in South Africa did not take the necessary steps to protect their employees from inhaling dangerously high levels of silica dust. As a result, hundreds of thousands of former mineworkers have since developed silicosis or contracted tuberculosis. It is estimated that over 20 percent of former workers in South Africa’s gold mines who are still alive have silicosis.
What makes the ex-miners tale even more tragic is that some of them won’t even know what hit them when they start exhibiting symptoms of the disease. This is because the symptoms of silicosis can appear 10 to 30 years after the first exposure, meaning the former miners could start feeling sick many years after having long retired. As if that is not bad enough, in many instances physicians without occupational health training were likely to misdiagnose the condition by thinking its TB thereby hastening their patients’ demise.
It is, thus, no overstatement that the ex-miners are victims of a silent epidemic and caught up in a system where ignorance is convenient for those with vested interests. Despite being entitled to occupational health compensation under South African laws, most of the ex-miners are suffering in silence. Their former employers are unlikely to monitor their health status, let alone notify them of an avenue for compensation.
According to the MDA, most cases of illness and fatalities were concentrated in Mohale’s Hoek, Quthing and Qacha’s Nek districts. Unfortunately, the agency has only been able to conduct disease testing and awareness campaigns in Maseru, Leribe and Mafeteng meaning ex-miners in the other districts are none the wiser about the peril they face.
In this edition, we also report that former gold miners and relatives of deceased ex-miners in South Africa won their legal battle for compensation against Anglo American and AngloGold. The ex-miners are set to receive R500 million from the mining companies with compensation only provided to claimants diagnosed with silicosis who worked for either company for at least two years.
However, without information, most Basotho ex-miners are likely to miss out. The awareness campaigns cannot only be the prerogative of MDA, but the government, media and other stakeholders have a role to play in relaying this very important message.
The South African state and the mining companies need to take a measure of responsibility for the harm caused, and they should provide full medical surveillance, diagnosis, and compensation in the case of ex-miners who contracted respiratory diseases. Such a framework would go some way towards redressing the failures of the past and current system.