A legacy of injustice and an under-resourced healthcare system has led to generations of workers becoming gravely ill.
Maseru, Lesotho – When Lebina Liphapang last went down the world’s deepest gold mine, he was already feeling sick. He had worked underground in South Africa for 29 years, far away from his wife and children back home in Lesotho. He was a general labourer, a winch driver, then a stoker.
It was harsh, he says, working underground. The darkness, the heat. “In the early days, we didn’t have mouth or nose protection. It was hardly bearable,” he said.
He wanted to continue working, despite the conditions. But one day in 2003 he asked for his retirement package. “I thought: ‘If I continue to work here I am going to die.’ As much as it is necessary to go to South Africa and work and provide a living for my family, this work was completely hazardous to me.”
He is one of tens of thousands of gold miners – many of them migrant workers like himself – who have registered for what is thought to be South Africa’s largest class action lawsuit in history. Three law firms – Richard Spoor Attorneys, Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys and the Legal Resources Center – have filed affidavits against 31 mining companies accusing them of damaging their clients’ health by exposing them to elevated levels of dust underground.
The suit charges the companies with 12 specific forms of neglect and endangerment, and is awaiting certification in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
A slow death
Liphapang coughs, his entire body rocking, as if shaken by an inner tremor. The 60-year-old recently found out what is wrong with him. Almost ten years after returning to Lesotho, he was diagnosed with second degree silicosis, an incurable, ultimately fatal, lung disease contracted from the inhalation of silica dust – which can be found in gold mines.
The green furniture in his farmhouse is still wrapped in the plastic cover it came with. Liphapang is also wrapped in thick clothes to protect his body from the cold. Winter has hit the kingdom and, in the mountains, where Liphapang lives with his wife, temperatures frequently drop below zero.
When he left what was then Anglogold Ashanti’s Western Deep Levels mine he was paid a lump sum of 5000 Rand ($480). While working in the mines, he says, he was never diagnosed with silicosis, nor has he received compensation for the disease. “I didn’t know about silicosis,” he admits. He thought he just had a cough, like most of the men coming back from the mines.
South Africa’s gold industry was founded on the migrant labour system, a system that heavily linked to the apartheid era. Black men from poverty-stricken areas across the south of the continent were cheaper to employ than locals. Even now, more than half of the total workforce in the mining sector is recruited from neighbouring countries. Once they leave the mines, however, they disappear from the radar of the occupational health institutions and the mining houses.
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