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The lost life of a goldmine worker

Richard Spoor is a public interest lawyer with a special interest in land reform and in the social, health and environmental impacts of mining, on workers and communities. He is a trustee and adviser to a number of land restitution trusts and communities.

It is likely that hundreds of thousands of mineworkers on the subcontinent suffer from silicosis. Most of them live anonymously and die unnoticed by those for whom they worked for decades. This is the story of one of those men.

My law firm represents former goldmine workers suffering from silicosis in an action pending before the South Gauteng High Court. We also represent the widows of men who have died of this disease.

It’s a large case brought on behalf of an entire class of miners and the widows of miners. No one knows the true number of former goldmine workers who have silicosis, but the number is likely in the range of 100,000 to 300,000 men scattered across the sub-continent.

We represent close on 30,000 former goldmine workers and widows. Most are from Lesotho and the Eastern Cape, and a smaller number are from Botswana and the Free State.

Each day we get more instruction, often just a bundle of old documents, that arrives by post with only scant detail. Sometime there is not even a return address. But the documents do tell a story, however incomplete. Today I received a small bundle that told me a little of the life and times of one goldmine worker, Joseph, whose full name I cannot disclose.

Joseph was born on 7 January 1952 at Hermon Manganeng, a village in the Mafeteng District in Lesotho.

Like many of his countrymen, Joseph was recruited by TEBA to work on the Reef gold mines. Joseph was contracted to work at the Grootvlei Proprietary Gold Mine near Springs on 18 January 1977, aged 25.

He worked 13 consecutive contracts, ranging in length from between 8 and 15 months. His last contract, which commenced 7 April 1993, was extended as a result of the democratic changes that were taking place at the time and Joseph continued to work at Grootvlei until he was retrenched on 5 December 1997. He lived in the same single sex mine hostel throughout.

His longest break in service was in the period 3 March 1988 to 8 August 1989. During this time Joseph married Rosina. She was 26, he was 28 at the time. They were married in the Parish of St Gerards in Mafeteng, after Banns.

On 5 September 1984 Joseph was “examined and found competent to operate a haulage engine”. For the rest of his time on the mines he worked as an underground locomotive driver, hauling ore from the work face to the shaft, where it was hoisted to surface.

In 1996 the National Union of Mineworkers endorsed Joseph’s application for permanent residence on the grounds that he was a member of the NUM, that he had been resident in South Africa before or since 13 June 1986 and that he had voted in the General Election in April 1994.

The application was clearly successful because that same year Joseph was issued with a South African identity book.

On 4 December 1997, after some 20 years of service, Joseph was handed a notice of retrenchment signed by the General Manager, Mr N J (Neil) Froneman, advising that he would be retrenched on 5 December.

Mr Froneman wrote:

“Retrenchment is not a step taken likely by Management and it is done to secure the long term future and stability of the Company without which it may be unsuccessful and prejudice the employment conditions of all employees.

“We appreciate that this may be a difficult period for you and if there are any ways in which we may be able to assist you, please do not hesitate to contact the Human Resources Manager.”

On the same day Joseph had a retrenchment interview with Daniel from H.R. He was advised that he would he would be paid four weeks’ notice, as well as a retrenchment benefit equal to two weeks’ salary, for his first year of unbroken service, and one week for every unbroken year of service thereafter – as well as “an ex-gracia (sic) payment of R1,700.00.”

The retrenchment benefit in the sum of R12,258.34 was paid to him the same day and he returned to Lesotho.

On 22 May 2007, Joseph died of tuberculosis associated with his exposure to silica mine dust.

Joseph was 55 years old and his death certificate reflects his occupation as “farmer”.


Our records show that about 4% of former gold miners die each year. The gold mine litigation in which my firm is engaged, and which is strongly opposed by the gold mining industry, commenced in 2006. Our work is, at this stage, barely scratching the surface. DM


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