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COVID-19 - A Double Threat To Sick Ex-South African Gold Miners

September 08th, 2020
topic:Health and Sanitation
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:South Africa, Malawi
tags:Africa, Coronavirus, COVID-19, human rights, mine worker

Not only is the novel Coronavirus delaying the sick ex-miners from accessing compensation for deadly ailments contracted in the gold mines, but also their severely compromised health makes them more vulnerable.

For close to six months now, Isaiah Laiton, a naturalised Zimbabwean originally from Malawi, has been hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic will end so that he can initiate the process of claiming compensation for a deadly respiratory ailment. He developed the condition after working at a gold mine in South Africa in the 1970s.

Laiton, who is barely literate and claims to be in his eighties, says that together, with two of his brothers and some fellow Malawians, they joined the great trek in the early 1970s to work in South African gold mines. Upon being discharged, he had taken up some jobs in Zimbabwe, and ended up settling there.

“One of my brothers is still alive in Malawi, but most of the others that I went to work in the gold mines with are long dead,” said Laiton, who lives in a decrepit former farm compound on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. He expressed his frustration that the COVID-19 lockdown had come at a time when he had just received information on the multi-million dollar fund recently set up in South Africa to compensate all former gold mine workers that have suffered health complications as a result of exposure to poor working conditions.

“I count myself very lucky to be still alive to this day because many of those I worked with are long dead because of the sickness that we contracted in the mines,” Laiton said. His worry now is that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the process of filing claims for compensation.

$400 Million Compensation Won

Laiton is one of the more than 500, 000 miners from South Africa and others from a number of southern African countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini that were made to work under inhuman conditions in South African gold mines from the 1960s. As result of these working conditions, most of the workers contracted fatal respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and silicosis. A landmark decision in 2016 by a South African judge allowed rights lawyers to launch a class action lawsuit on behalf of miners who contracted respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis and silicosis – which is caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks – while working in the underground mines. It took more than another three years for the lawyers and the mining firms to settle on a global figure of ZAR 5 billion (about US$400 million) as compensation for the loss of health and other losses and abuses that the workers suffered as the mining firms blindly pursued profits.

“It’s been a long road … very challenging. But I think we’ve got a good settlement. It’s a huge relief,” said Richard Spoor, a leading lawyer on the case.

Historic Victory for Mine Workers

In a joint statement Breathe Films (producers of the award-winning documentary, “Dying for Gold”) and the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) a regional rights watchdog, welcomed the judgement of the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, which approved the R5 billion out of court settlement.

Tuberculosis Class Action case.

“The settlement is an historic and important victory towards justice for mine-workers and is the culmination of a protracted court battle fought by the Legal Resources Centre, Richard Spoor Attorneys and Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys on behalf of a class of former gold miners who contracted silicosis or pulmonary tuberculosis during or after being employed as gold miners from March 1965 to date”, the two organisations said.

Six major South African gold mining firms cited in the lawsuit agreed to pool together the R5 billion kitty under the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group. These firms are African Rainbow Minerals‚ Anglo American SA‚ AngloGold Ashanti‚ Gold Fields‚ Harmony and Sibanye Stillwater.

In terms of the settlement, the funds will be used to establish Tshiamiso Trust, which will run over a 12-year period and will be responsible for paying the compensation benefits to eligible gold miners and their dependants in Southern Africa. The Trust was registered with the High Court in South Africa in February this year and when the COVID-19 lockdown came into effect, it was still struggling to find its feet.

Victims Scattered Across Many Countries

What began next was the onerous task of tracing and medically screening the intended beneficiaries; most of whom are scattered around some remote rural areas, across more than half-a-dozen southern African countries. Access to information is still a big challenge to many African communities, worse still for senior citizens most of whom who have little or no education.

According to the SARC, Tshiamiso Trust now faces the huge challenge of identifying, tracking and paying an estimated 500, 000 ex-miners affected by lung diseases.

“In the case of this settlement, the challenges are onerous because the affected mine-workers and eligible claimants are in many cases sick and dying and too weak to travel and to make the claims themselves; they cannot access or provide the required legal and administrative information; they do not have access to the legal and medical information required from the South African state and multinational mining corporations, TEBA (The Employment Bureau of Africa) and related institutions required to make the claim' they are poor and under-resourced to meet the onerous financial, medical, administrative and technical requirements to make the claims; they are dispersed across southern Africa, often isolated in rural areas and are difficult to trace and locate; they are not aware or informed of the settlement and their right to claim.”

More Than 5 Million Deaths

Throughout the protracted negotiations representatives of the miners argued that the ever-present dangers from silica-laden dust were raised more than a century ago, just as the South African mining boom began. Preventative measures to the problem, which include blowing huge quantities of chilled air through the mine shafts and the use of masks, were also known, but these measures were ignored until recently after hundreds of thousands of workers were exposed to these hazardous working conditions.

The disease causes a persistent cough, shortness of breath and chest pains, and makes those suffering from it susceptible to tuberculosis, among others ailments. It is estimated that more than five million people have died in southern Africa over the past 130 years from tuberculosis and silicosis contracted while working in the South African gold mines.

Justice for Miners Campaign

Breathe Films and SARW have since launched the Justice for Miners Campaign to build awareness of the challenges that lie ahead and campaign for solidarity with the former miners and their families. The campaign seeks to ensure efficient compensation for mine workers through – among other things – advocating for legal reform of the related compensation laws to reduce the onerous requirements for compensation; supporting workers who have contracted lung diseases in applying for the compensation due to them; as well as raising awareness of the bureaucratic, legal, geographical, political and financial obstacles that stand in their way.

Case For Urgency

According to Spoor – the case’s lawyer – an additional reason for urgency is the age and infirmity of the miners with silicosis.

“We’ve done the best we can, but I’m always anxious about not holding out long enough – we’ve already lost half of the potential claimants”, he said.

Concerns Over COVID-19 Delays

Justice for Miners Campaign is also concerned that the nascent Tshiamiso Trust said that lung function tests couldn’t be used due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“Again, this will cause huge delays in claimants qualifying for compensation. The campaign urges the trust to urgently find alternative ways to determine the level of damage to the lungs.”

The campaign raised concern that the Trust said that due to Covid-19 it was limited to considering claims only from individuals (or, if deceased, their dependants) for whom there exist medical records.

“This approach will severely delay the payment of compensation to claimants…this assumes that ex-miners can send text messages or access telephone help lines. We do not believe that this is the case. Sick ex-miners require a lot of assistance to engage with the electronic portal to the trust as proposed.”

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa Malawi
Isaiah Laiton waits for the COVID-19 pandemic to end so that he could initiate the process if claiming compensation for a deadly respiratory ailment that he suffers from after working at a gold mine in South Africa in the 1970s.
“I count myself very lucky to be still alive to this day because many of those I worked with are long dead because of the sickness that we contracted in the mines.”
Laiton is one of the more than 500, 000 miners.