Every Friday for the past decade, Sphiwo William Casiwe has made his way from his home in Khayelitsha to the local activist hub, the Isivivana Centre, for a meeting with fellow ex-mineworkers. He clutches his satchel as he hails taxis and navigates pavements. He rests his hands on the bag’s flap as he waits for the meeting to start.
The bag contains his passbook, issued when he was 17 and headed for the gold mines of Johannesburg. He can never be sure when an opportunity might arise for him to use the passbook’s meticulous employment records to claim his pension benefits.
Casiwe met Bennet Vavi when he joined the ex-mineworkers association in 2008. Since then, the two have become the vice-chairperson and chairperson of the association respectively. Each day, they navigate the web of red tape on behalf of other ex-mineworkers and their dependants to try to claim the money owed to them. Vavi and Casiwe feel their pension might mean they could finally go back to the home they were torn from as teenagers, and rest.
Casiwe recalls regularly arriving home after his 10km from school to find empty plates for supper. Their family home was outside Alice in the Eastern Cape. This worried him deeply, so much so that in 1978 at the age of 15 he left school to become a migrant worker like his father. He felt he needed to help feed his 13 siblings. He waited a year for his passbook to be issued. By the age of 17 he was mining gold in Johannesburg.
“It’s not easy to work underground. You walk on your hands and knees. The mines are like a jail because the things they do is what people do in jails. We were young, and everyone was taking advantage of you,” he says with downcast eyes.
“It’s heavy, but you can’t go back home because you know you are still going to struggle because there is no food. They are struggling, you see.”
He has many of these painful experiences in common with Vavi and other ex-mineworkers.
By the time Vavi was in Grade 4 he knew he wanted to be a farmer. By the time he was 18 he had left school near Queenstown and moved to the Western Cape where he worked odd jobs, from operating machines in Grabouw to making bricks in Strand. Friends told him he would make money for his farm a lot faster if he worked on the mines.
He says he thanks God that he knew how to fight before he arrived at the mine on the border between South Africa and Eswatini. He adds that he had to defend himself from abuse, including sexual abuse. Like Casiwe, he considered leaving, but felt it was not a viable option.
“I knew that if I ran away and I came home then people would start undermining me and saying I am weak because I ran away and that if I am a man then I must be strong,” he explains. “We used to manage those conditions, no matter how hard. You must understand, if I ran away people would laugh and say I am weak.”
Casiwe moved to the Western Cape after his accident and worked at a springs factory until he was dismissed in 2014 for protesting against wage differences between black and white workers. He cannot work because a life of hard labour has resulted in several chronic medical conditions. He relies on his wife’s salary.
Vavi too went to the Western Cape after his time on the mines. He was elected a shop steward at the factory he was working at in Epping. During this time he became well versed in pension law and has repeatedly challenged pension funds to claim his benefits – sometimes with small victories.
Both men say they never received compensation for injuries from mining accidents. Vavi’s leg was injured while he was working underground. Casiwe was instructed to work in an area he wasn’t authorised to be in, and that is when the rocky ceiling came down on his back. He was not taken to hospital or compensated; he says the mine turned a blind eye because it was more convenient. The incident made him decide to leave the mines for good.
He was 21 years old at the time.
Both men said that they hardly ever got payslips. They recalled holding bowls into which their wages would be dropped. Often, deductions were made without explanation or their permission. It is that money they now seek.
Currently, the onus is officially on the fund administrators to trace those who are owed benefits. The administrator is a private financial services company which is paid to manage the assets of pension funds and make sure members are kept in the loop and paid their benefits.
Pensioners can try to trace the fund administrator using the Financial Sector Conduct Authority’s (FSCA) unclaimed benefits search engine. Once they find the administrator, they then have to contact them and prove their claim is valid.
If only it were so simple.
Casiwe and Vavi’s benefits form part of the R42-billion owed in unpaid benefits to some 44 million South Africans. This figure is given by the The Bottom Line investigative research report into the South African pension fund industry written by Open Secrets.
They argue that not all the money has been looted, but it will take a concerted effort on the part of the government and private companies to connect with fund members and release it.
Mamello Mosiana and Michael Marchant, two researchers who worked on the report, argue that this process is complicated by the fact that so many people don’t know who to turn to. “It’s not simply through fault of their own, but the fact that the industry is very opaque,” says Marchant.
During the course of their research, they repeatedly encountered people who had visited their administrator but were told that the records do not exist, that the benefits have been paid out (but no proof of payment can be found) or they need to pay to access their own records.
The members know they contributed but haven’t received the benefits, and don’t know who to turn to next.
The apathy of administrators and the FSCA to find fund members is evident in them calling it unclaimed, and not unpaid, benefits despite providing what is essentially a social security service, says Mosiana.
“The reason they call it ‘unclaimed’ is so ridiculous, because the people who are putting in the most effort to find their pensions are actually the pensioners or their beneficiaries and it shouldn’t be on them,” says Mosiana.
“They come with their IDs, their ‘blue cards’ from the mines or their passbooks – they have all the documents and they make the effort, but the regulator is not putting in as much effort as they should be.
“In a country that is so unequal with so many people who can’t really read or access the internet it is ridiculous how much is being put on people who are already poor to do all of this. Even just running around –how many taxis must they take to get from one place to the other?”
Their research has shown them that ex-mineworkers face a particular set of challenges when trying to claim their benefits. On the one hand, their cause seems to be the one given the most attention by government – yet nothing materialises from it.
Many are poor and injured today. Mineworkers described their work as slavery enabled by chiefs and the apartheid government.
The migratory nature of minework means they now live far from the mines they worked at and their former colleagues, making it difficult to communicate using their limited resources. The mines kept precise records in workers’ passbooks, but somehow failed to document pension deductions with the same vigour. They navigate a murky bureaucratic maze where the money, influence and information is not in their hands.
This is the context in which Vavi and Casiwe work. Their association is part of a loose network of ex-mineworkers groups around South Africa and they also have ties to the national Unpaid Benefits Campaign. They are hosted by Workers’ World Media Productions at the Isivivana Centre.
The association mainly engages with government, as they have found the government to be more open than private companies. In the association’s experience, government officials tend to acknowledge that the money is there waiting for them.
However, Vavi says that every time officials change after an election their story vanishes and they have to begin correspondence from the very beginning. They are sent from one official to the next in a maze of documents and permissions.
They are often met with patronising dismissals from officials who are meant to help them. Casiwe says: “Everywhere we go to claim they ask: ‘Yhu tata, what are you going to do with so lot of money?’ All they are offering you is R5,000, which is too little. They think you are blind because you have no school.”
They have both found that this apathy extends to the top tiers of government. They have repeatedly engaged with parliamentary committees, the department of labour, the department of mineral resources and the department of health. They are sent from one to the other, constantly, with very few answers to show for it.
They fear that the money will soon be looted before they can access it.
“They are busy eating that money. You can see all those people in government are on the list of corrupt people… their sons and daughters are driving with big cars,” says Casiwe. “How can you hear that Zuma’s son is a billionaire? How old is that laaitie? When did he work? Where did he work? They are using the money.”
Vavi adds: “Our biggest problem in South Africa is that the political people are blind people. They took us as black and turned us to look at the whites and told us the whites oppress us. But if you can check the South Africa now, the ANC is oppressing the people better than white people.
“We don’t say white people don’t oppress, but ANC is more than them because they say they rule this land up until Jesus come back. Why do they say that, if they hold the people’s money and don’t care about governing this country? They hold the money. The ANC are spread now in pieces and they don’t care as long as they know all the money is in their hands.”
They say they feel abandoned by the trade unions they paid membership fees to all their lives and the lawyers who have tried to dupe them into giving them a slice of their benefits once they receive them.
“We are like a small baby. We have got nothing and no one. No one even thinks that they can and should give us food… This morning I couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee, but I must sit here until 12pm with diabetes. Things like that effect your body and you still have to fight and stress. We are always stressing for our money and it’s not right,” says Casiwe.
They both feel that if they got their pension they could use it to finally return to the Eastern Cape where they would live in peace.
“It’s not nice to sit in a location like us here in Khayelitsha because day and night people are dying in front of you. They shoot each other. When you are old, you need peace. I can go home [to the Eastern Cape] and buy goats and sheep and look after my things if I can get my money. Then I know I can leave this house here for my children. When we were young it was still nice in Cape Town, but not any more,” says Casiwe.
Their migration might yet come to an end. MC.
"It's always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don't make changes. Don't risk disapproval. Don't upset your syndics. It's always easiest to let yourself be governed." ~ Ursula Le Guin