“I thought I could work at the mines for maybe eight, ten years, and when I came back, maybe I could buy something like a tractor, and plough the land.” Mfuneko Twala shakes his head. “But I didn’t do that.”

Twala, 58, is sitting outside the dilapidated two-roomed house he shares with his wife and their five young children. Inside, the laughter and chatter of the kids is audible as they jump up and down together on the one bed they sleep in at night.

Twala lives in Qunu, the village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape which raised the country’s most famous citizen. The sprawling property at which Nelson Mandela spent much of his retirement lies only a few kilometres down the hill from Twala’s home. But the promise of a better life for which Mandela fought has not been experienced by Twala, or countless others in this impoverished province.

When Twala was 27 years old, in 1982, he signed up with The Employment Bureau of Africa (TEBA), which has been recruiting young men to fulfil the Witwatersrand mining industry’s labour requirements since 1902. Twala was one of many from the rural Eastern Cape who have sought their fortune on the mines for over a century: the industry terms the province a major “labour-sending area”.

Twala was sent to what was formerly known as the Western Areas North Shaft, a gold and uranium mine constructed during the 1960s which lies roughly 40 km outside Johannesburg. As a muscular young man, Twala was set to work as a rock driller: a job generally acknowledged as the toughest underground, which exposes workers to the most hazardous and uncomfortable conditions on the mine. In addition to damp, heat, and the threat of rock-falls, the act of drilling produces large quantities of dust.

“That was a very hard job,” Twala remembers now, back in the quiet village where he was born. “I was very strong then. That machinery that I’m drilling…People that are weak can’t drill.”

After less than a decade working underground, Twala began to experience a tightness in his chest. “When I tried to cough, I felt dry,” he explains. Diagnosed by a mine doctor in 1991 with the lung disease silicosis, he continued to work underground for a further three years. In 1994 Twala left the mines. Despite his lung problems, he explains that he would have continued to work because he needed the money, but increasing violence in the mine hostels drove him back to his rural home.

1994 was the year when Qunu’s most famous son entered the highest office in the land as South Africa’s first black president. But despite the wave of optimism sweeping the country in the new democratic era, most of Qunu’s residents would remain desperately poor. Today, unemployment in Qunu is estimated at 70 percent. Mfuneko Twala would always have struggled to find meaningful long-term work. But as a former mineworker, a bigger problem was that he was trained only for physical labour – and his lungs were damaged.

*  *  *

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Thembekile Zide lost his voice for several years after a throat operation he underwent to determine the cause of a nagging cough. Zide worked in the mines for most of his life, often in jobs he didn't want to do because of the rough conditions. Here, he reads the Bible to his granddaughter outside his home in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Thapelo Lekgowa)

About 60km from Qunu, on the other side of the region’s biggest city, Mthatha, lies a village called Mafusini. Here, among undulating green hills, a 61-year-old man called Mashunyana Mshiywa lives in a humble rondavel.

Mshiywa made his journey to the mines in 1970, at only 18 years old. His destination was a gold mine called President Steyn, in what was then the Orange Free State (now Free State). Mshiywa’s job was to load the gold ore into underground carts: work he does not recall with fondness.

Around eight years into Mshiywa’s work underground, he started getting sick.

“I started coughing, getting colds and experiencing chest pains,” Mshiywa recalls, speaking in Xhosa through a translator. It is a swelteringly warm day, and Mshiywa is sitting next to a small dresser in his airless hut. On it lies a white hard-hat: a memento from his time on the mines. He mops his face. “Even now, as hot as it is, I have another cold.”

In 1978, Mshiywa says he spent three months in a mine hospital with an unspecified chest problem. He has had problems with his chest and lungs ever since.

“The mine doctor said my chest has dust, and the best thing they could do was to provide me with a dust mask.” Mshiywa claims he was only given a dust mask in 2005. “But already it was too late because the dust was already inside my lungs.”

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Mashunyana Mshiywa started to struggle with lung problems in 1978. He was later diagnosed with Tuberculosis and forced to take retirement by the mining company he worked for as an underground train driver, ferrying mined gold from dig sites. (Photo: Thapelo Lekgowa(

Mshiywa worked on the mines for 37 years in total. Rummaging under a threadbare mattress on his bed, he draws out a well-worn cardboard dossier: his mine medical record. He pages through it. One entry, for 3rd July 1992, reads, in a mine doctor’s scrawled hand: “General body pains and coldness. Chest pain and coughing. Chest wheezy. Temperature.” There are references throughout the years to coughing and chest pain.

Mshiywa produces another document: his Eastern Cape government medical records. They show that from January 2010, he was placed on TB medication. Mshiywa’s contraction of silicosis, as a result of his exposure to dust on the mines, would have rendered his lungs more vulnerable to the development of TB. The incidence rate of TB among South African mineworkers is estimated as the highest in the world. It is not hard to find sick men like Mshiywa in the villages of the Eastern Cape.

* * *

Mfuneko Twala blames his damaged lungs for the fact that he is unable to adequately provide for his family.

“When I’m working, maybe I take a shovel, one, two…[he mimics a digging motion]. I must take a breath, I must stop,” he says. “I worked very hard and now I can’t do nothing. When I go now to do a little job, I feel very heavy.”

He sits on his bed beneath a hanging, exposed lightbulb and picks up the tablets a local doctor has given him to take. Twala claims that every three months, they cost him R730.

He hold the mines directly responsible for his condition. “When you drill [the drilling machine], there is a lot of pressure with smoke. The smoke makes a cloud, and you inhale it. I think it is that thing that did [in] my lungs.”

Twala says that he does not have the money for his children to complete their schooling. When he thinks of the mines, he says that he is “too much” angry.

But the truth is that Twala is one of the lucky ones. He is part of a tiny minority who successfully claimed, and were paid out, money from the Compensation Commissioner for Occupational Diseases. In 2005, Twala received a payout of R60 000, which he says vaguely that he “invested”.

“It’s not enough because this sickness is going forward,” he says. “I think I will die because of this sickness. That is not enough money.”

Mashunyana Mshiywa hasn’t seen a cent in compensation for his compromised health. “They said they would give me money but they haven’t up till now,” he says. “I went to Joburg in 2012 to the Chamber of Mines and they made me sign papers and give them fingerprints, and they promised that I would be paid. But I haven’t been paid.”

Mshiywa has lost hope that he will ever receive any money. Like Twala, he says that if he were healthy, he would be able to earn money to support his family. Mshiywa has eight children and two grandchildren. One of his fears is that the intergenerational cycle of poverty will mean his children or grandchildren must someday make the same journey that he undertook more than 40 years ago, to find work on the mines.

“I really wouldn’t advise or be happy for them to work on the mines,” Mshiywa says. “But because of our conditions, and the lack of employment, there really might be no choice but for them to work there.”

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Hempson Keke Mafa, 77, began working underground in the mines in Springs, in 1958. He said he received a total of R27 000 in compensation from the mining company he worked for, after he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis in 1992. (Photo: Thapelo Lekgowa)


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MAIN PHOTO: A gold miner works deep underground at Cooke Shaft near Johannesburg, September 22, 2005. Mike Hutchins, Reuters