Check-up After the silicosis victory, new mines are targeted
Workers tell of battle to get documents in bid for compensation
● For 58-year-old Mampondo Mfunda, who lives in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, it has been three years since he was diagnosed with silicosis.
Mfunda began work as a gold-mine worker in 1980. He worked for various mines for 35 years until 2015 when he was told he could not continue because of silicosis.
Silicosis can be contracted from inhaling dust containing fine crystalline silica, which is toxic and can lead to bronchitis and lung cancer.
“I cough all the time now. I can’t run or walk fast anymore, and I also can’t walk uphill roads, narrow downhill roads or carry a five-litre bucket for a long time without feeling a burn in my chest,” Mfunda said.
He contracted TB in 2010. He was treated and went back to the mine where he continued until his last day of work five years later.
Since then his health has deteriorated and his body grows weaker by the day.
Mfunda is among 100 000 men and women who have worked on gold mines, some since 1965, and who suffer from silicosis or tuberculosis. They now stand to receive compensation.
In a case that could have dragged on for more than 20 years had it gone to court, a settlement was reached on Thursday when six gold-mining companies signed an out of court agreement of R5-billion with lawyers representing mine workers who had contracted silicosis and tuberculosis while working underground.
A while ago Mfunda was told by neighbours that he should put together his documents to claim compensation, but he had not heard anything since.
He had not gone to the facility in Mthatha for mine workers to submit their documents, he said, but he hoped he was in the system somewhere and that he would be compensated along with the others.
He is just one of many people in the rural area of Lusikisiki affected by the illnesses, according to Albert Mvumile Simkana, also a former gold-mine worker who stopped working before he became infected.
Simkana said he had friends who had been former colleagues who had also been infected. He needed to find a way to track down the lawyers who could help put together documents so that they could also be compensated, he said.
“The community has been talking about it [the silicosis case] for a long time and wondering when they will get compensated. Things are finally moving ahead for them before even more people die,” Simkana said.
Richard Spoor is one of the lawyers who is representing workers in the silicosis case. His firm had had its eyes on coal-mining companies, among them Sasol, Exxaro, South32 and Anglo American Coal, with regard to two types of occupational diseases contracted by coalmine workers.
The two types of disease former employees have are coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, which is similar to silicosis and is also known as black-lung disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Some workers had a combination of the diseases, while others had just one.
Spoor said he had been screening the coal-mine workers for either of the diseases. The firm was running a test case at Sasol Coal on behalf of 22 individuals and would screen about 200 workers at Tshikondeni in Limpopo. “We are moving from community to community to find former mine workers,” Spoor said.
Because his firm would be looking at coal-mine workers on a company-by-company basis rather than through a class action, the next step would be to institute a case against Sasol next year.
“We intend to issue more actions for claims to damages between now and next year against other coal companies. The suggestions are that they will be open to some kind of settlement but you can’t just walk in and do that; there has to be research, file the claims, etc otherwise you’re playing games,” Spoor said.
Occupational diseases did not receive much interest from lawyers because of the tedious work and research that went into it, he said. But his firm would continue looking into occupational diseases.
“Long term, one of the most glaring is induced hearing loss.
“There are tens of thousands of mine workers and industrial workers as well those who are not getting a fair deal. So long term we are looking at those,” Spoor said.
Sipho Shongwe, a former gold-mine worker who lives on the East Rand, has been canvassing other former mine workers in the area to bring a case on radiation-related illnesses that some of the former workers have claimed to suffer from.
Spoor said the big problem with radiation illnesses was that the vast majority of occupational cancers were not being diagnosed as occupational diseases. Radiation illnesses include soft-tissue cancer and leukaemia.
“We have seen a lot of cancers coming out of the petrochemicals industries and these people are not being compensated, or dealt with fairly, but these people are entitled to benefit in the [Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases] Act and they should be getting compensation,” Spoor said.
Employers did not recognise that these diseases were occupational diseases and the compensation commissioner did not recognise them either, so they were falling between the cracks.
Shongwe, who is pursuing his radiation case, said it had been challenging but the silicosis settlement had given him hope.
“It’s just a matter of keeping on digging and digging until I find someone who wants to help us,” Shongwe said.
Money from the silicosis case will be in a fund for 12 years for workers to claim.
I cough all the time now. I can’t run or walk fast anymore without feeling a burn in my chest
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, centre, during a $390-million (R5-billion) settlement signed between workers affected by silicosis and mining companies.