SPECIAL REPORT: After 2 years, historic silicosis case miners await justice

Funds due to be paid out to ex-miners after the landmark silicosis class action suit are yet to be given to them, more than two years since the agreement.

"They took our documents and pictures and said we will be paid. We have been waiting ever since." - Mzawubalekwa Diya. Picture: Pixabay.com

JOHANNESBURG - Former miners with silicosis - who spent their adult lives digging for gold in South Africa’s mines - still have not been paid more than two years after a High Court-approved settlement between miners and companies in an historic class action.

More than two years ago, the country celebrated the settlement agreement after the landmark class-action suit against nine gold mining companies, forcing them to compensate miners suffering from the insidious respiratory disease. Drawn to Johannesburg and other gold mining towns in South Africa in search of employment in the 1960s and 1970s, many of these former miners have since retreated to their homes in remote villages locally and elsewhere in southern Africa, while others have succumbed to the lung disease.

The Occupational Lung Disease Working Group represented AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony, Sibanye-Stillwater, African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti and Gold Fields against the claimants, which reached the historic settlement after almost five years of negotiations.

Now, Eyewitness News has learned that the affected miners, facing the inevitability of death, are losing hope of ever receiving justice.

The disease usually affects people in jobs where they breathe in dust that contains silica – a tiny crystal found in sand, rock or mineral ores such as quartz. It causes scarring in the lungs, a painful cough, and shortness of breath. Its symptoms show much later than when a person is first exposed to it.

Mzawubalekwa Diya hails from the Eastern Cape. He told Eyewitness News in these past two weeks that as an intended compensation receiver, he was no longer concerned about his needs. He explained that the silicosis ravaged his body and he knew the end was near. But he would find peace if, by the time he is buried, there was something to show for his suffering.

“What the Trust people have done so far is that they came to the villages and said we must go to a meeting in town. They took our documents and pictures and said we will be paid. We have been waiting ever since,” he said.

The Tshiamiso Trust is a byproduct of the 2012 class action lawsuit against 30 gold mining companies for failing to take adequate safety measures to protect miners from exposure to the dangerous silica dust. The Trust said it did not call meetings with former mine workers as yet, adding they were concerned there was fraudulent activity in some areas.

"There has been a lot of fraudulent activity out there, with people are trying to get money from these sick and poor mineworkers telling them that they can claim on their behalf. We have been on a very big fraud campaign since last year trying to get the message out that please realise no one can claim on your behalf," said the Trust's CEO, Daniel Kotton.

After the parties reached an agreement in May 2018, a settlement was approved by the Johannesburg High Court in July 2019.

The Trust, formally constituted in February 2020, started setting up operating systems last year. But more than a year after the settlement was reached, no one can say when the first miners will get the little that is due to them.

Balakisi Bangumuzi, also from the Eastern Cape, is one of many miners who were not aware at the time of their retrenchments from mines that they had contracted the illness – only to fall ill once they returned home.

He worked on the gold belt in Randfontein from the 1970s till 1999 and said he verified that his name was among the hundreds of thousands of former mineworkers eligible for payment.

However, with the Tshiamiso Trust yet to issue payments from the R5 billion agreement, which can amount to up to R500,000 per claimant in exceptional circumstances, he wondered if he would live to see the day his family’s fortunes turned.

"It’s hard to put our children through school or do anything, really. We can’t even afford to go to the doctor to have the silicosis and other medical conditions we now suffer from...[seen to]."

Mining activists, including civil society organisation Justice For Miners, have slammed the slow pace of the rollout of compensation payments to former mineworkers who suffer from silicosis, saying this is sending them to their deaths early.

Justice For Miners chair Bishop Jo Seoka told Eyewitness News last week: “The mandate is very clear. The judgment said the harm that has been done cannot be reversed and the trustees must ensure that the settlement is effected to help those who are meant to be assisted with it.”

Experts, meanwhile, described attempts to understand the depths of the silicosis crisis in the country as amounting to unscrambling a complex entanglement.

This was not only because there was very little communication from relevant government and non-governmental institutions but because the victims of the disease were also out of sight.

The activists described to Eyewitness News not only debilitating health conditions that hit ex-mineworkers but also dire living conditions as many were unable to take up any form of work due to their weakened health.

Ziyanda Manjati has been working with the families of ex-mineworkers since the early 2000s at the onset of preparations for the historic class-action lawsuit that sought to hold mining companies accountable for the suffering endured by their former employees, as a result of silicosis. She says she has seen it all.

“Most of these families don’t have money to go to the medical doctors. Yes, we do understand that silicosis is incurable but there are ways, at least medical treatment, that they can use because most of them who are suffering from silicosis are also suffering from TB. In order to prevent those instances, the claimants – if they were consulting medical doctors now and then - at least they will be able to get the correct medication to make the illness better and avoid suffering from TB.”

Her plea is for the Tshiamiso Trust to do its work, saying that the Trust should be proactive in the tracking and tracing of the beneficiaries so that the gap of criminals posing as middlemen can be eliminated.

"Payments can be faster than they are already trying to do. Its almost two years after the trust was formulated. What they do each and every time is that they say the Trust did, says this... We feel that the judgment that was done in the High Court is not what Tshiamiso is doing on the ground."

Janet Kahn has lived in Welkom most of her adult life. There she and her husband, who is a doctor in the mines, have also witnessed how the illness ravages healthy bodies of workers who had no idea that signing up for jobs to put food on their families’ tables would ultimately cost them their lives.

She spent many years working to ease their pain – helping with compensation applications and educating them about the incurable disease that had riddled their lungs.

“It’s a progressive disease. The families watch their loved ones progressively getting weaker and sicker and battling more and more to breathe. It has material implications because they are no longer earning a salary. If they come from non-South African countries – there is no real security in terms of security pension,” she said.

Kotton explained to Eyewitness News last week that it would be rolling out payments to the former mineworkers in the coming months – adding that it had to ensure that extensive systems were in place to ensure the process was carried out as per the Trust’s deed, which has specific stipulations on how the process can be carried out.

“There is a big misunderstanding that ‘I have now submitted my claim and why am I not being paid’ but it’s a step-by-step process and we need to have all those sets of big infrastructure in place for us to process the claims,” he said.

The Trust will be paying out a maximum of R250,000 to the ex-miners, while those with the most severe cases of silicosis can be paid up to R500,000.

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