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23 September 2017 21:59 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: ‘We will soon die’

  • LUCAS LEDWABA
    LUCAS LEDWABA
  • South Africa
Photo: Boxwell Mokholofu (Photo by Leon Sadiki)

Mokholofu did not live to see the finalisation of the case. Many others will continue to die – while the gold mining companies pop champagne and celebrate big profits, dancing on the bones of Mokholofu and his colleagues. By LUCAS LEDWABA.

Son, when are you completing the case?”

Boxwell Mokholofu would often enquire with a heavy heart each time field workers from the Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA) in Maseru paid him a visit at his village home in Tlokweng where he lived in depressing poverty.

Often, Shafiq Isaacs, who with his team from the MDA have in the past five years been travelling to remote corners of Lesotho trying to find former gold mine workers to help them get screened for TB and silicosis, would struggle to find answers for the desperate and sickly man waiting for justice.

We will soon die,” Mokholofu would remark in a tone of utter desperation and defeat.

Three weeks ago, while the wheels of justice ground ever slowly in a faraway court across the border in South Africa, Mokholofu breathed his last.

Another one of thousands of broke, broken and bitter Basotho men chewed and spewed by the gold mines of South Africa went to his grave without ever finding justice for the suffering wrought upon him and many thousands of others, by gold mining companies who for over a century prioritised profit over the health and safety of workers.

The majority of these men who contracted the incurable lung cancer silicosis, were poor, semi-literate black African men from across the SADC region’s far-flung rural areas, including the Eastern Cape.

Mokholofu, who was buried in Tlokweng, the village of his birth near the town of Butha Buthe, was/is the sixth plaintiff in the long running class action against 29 gold mining companies which owned more than 78 mines between 1965 and 2012.

The former mine workers, through lawyer Richard Spoor, are suing their former employers for having contracted an occupational and incurable disease, silicosis and pulmonary TB. They argue that adequate safety measures were not applied to protect them from inhaling huge amounts of silica dust which causes the disease.

In the second-class action, the dependents of mine workers who died as a result of silicosis are suing for loss of support due to the deaths of their breadwinners. They are also claiming for medical and funeral expenses incurred.

The case has been dragging in the High Court and Constitutional Court as mining houses launched a fierce defence based largely on technicalities.

But in May last year the South Gauteng High Court ruled that the mine workers and their dependents have grounds to proceed with the class action after the mining companies lodged action to oppose such a move.

Then in September the Supreme Court of appeal granted six of the defendants leave to appeal against the South Gauteng High Court ruling, leading to another lengthy delay as the mining houses prepare to file their appeals.

And so, the long wait continues for the former mine workers, sickly men who are living in abject poverty in far-flung, under-developed rural areas of the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Mozambique and other parts of the SADC region. Without work and unable to work due to their poor physical state, they continue, together with their dependents, to go hungry and struggle to pay for medical care. Silicosis has rendered them mere shells, pale shadows of their former selves, men who struggle to as much as walk a few hundred metres to a clinic.

Although the exact numbers are not known, it is feared Mokholofu’s case is just but one of countless men who continue to die at home and in rural clinics, far away from the glare of the media and the courts; men forgotten and discarded by employers they enriched through their labour and their health.

The National Union of Mineworkers, civil society groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign who are in support of the class action have accused the mining houses of deliberately dragging out the matter.

They argue that their continuous argument against technicalities is a deliberate ploy to see to it that many of the plaintiffs like Mokholofu die before the matter is finalised, hoping that this will minimise the costs of the compensation they would have to pay should the courts rule in the mine workers’ favour.

We may never truly know the real reason the mining companies have chosen to battle it out in the courts instead of settling like they did in the other class action heard in a London Court last year.

The tragic and brutal truth though, is that the Mokholofu family, and many others in their state, continue to live in poverty, anxiously awaiting the day they will at least find comfort in the knowledge that even though their loved ones passed on before finding justice, they will at least have some form of compensation to make their lives more bearable.

Monetary compensation, although it won’t bring back their loved ones, will at least serve as some form of justice for the sins of the mine bosses. When I met Mokholofu during the research of my book, Broke & Broken – The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa early last year, he was a disillusioned and depressed man. He confessed his depression had seen him find an escape in a local brew.

He had worked on the mines from 1975 until he was retrenched in 1998. In 2007, long after he had last gone down a gold mine, he was diagnosed with silicosis. He was filled with regret and anger. He regretted having made the journey to the mines. He wished he had stayed home and farmed sheep and worked the lands.

He was angry that he had fallen for the false lure of money from the mines and left his picturesque home on the edges of the imposing Maluti mountains. He was even more angry at his former bosses for having failed to protect him against the killer disease.

And now his greatest fear has come to pass. He did not live to see the finalisation of the case. Many others will continue to die – while the gold mining companies pop champagne and celebrate big profits, dancing on the bones of Mokholofu and his colleagues. How long? DM

Photo: Boxwell Mokholofu (Photo by Leon Sadiki)

Lucas Ledwaba is the author of Broke & Broken – The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa (Jacana-BlackBird 2016)

  • LUCAS LEDWABA
    LUCAS LEDWABA
  • South Africa

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