A recent landmark ruling in South Africa will change the face of mining, but it may take years for it to help foreign-born miners. The ruling, issued this spring, allows former mineworkers to form class-action lawsuits against mining companies for exposing them to conditions that caused high rates of silicosis and tuberculosis. But miners from the nation of Lesotho — who have worked in neighboring South Africa for decades — aren’t confident the ruling will change their lives for the better.
The distrust is etched into the lines of Jobere Moleteo’s face. After years of being lied to, he has no faith in the South African mining companies that employed him for years. Like many former mine workers, he didn’t realize the gravity of his situation until he came home to the village of Setibing, in the landlocked southern African kingdom of Lesotho. After working in South African mines for decades, he and other miners know how to do little else, and will likely remain in poverty for the rest of their lives.
They often come home to Lesotho chronically ill, their breathing labored, a heaviness in their chest. The coughing in itself can be debilitating.
Moleteo was never warned about the dangers of mining. He worked underground at a gold mine for decades. Eventually he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctors didn’t explain much, but he knew the diagnosis meant he wouldn’t be able to return to work without treatment — treatment he couldn’t afford.
Getting compensation for his condition wouldn’t be easy. While individual lawsuits against mining companies are currently allowed, ex-miners rarely have the money to follow through, so a class-action lawsuit is the only way to receive proper compensation.
Shafiq Isaacs is 28. He is the occupational health and compensation program manager for the Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA), an organization that provides support for former mine workers in Lesotho.
Part of Isaacs’ work is to play detective. He lays a file out on a makeshift table made of a couple of chairs and a Lesotho map on a foam board. It’s an application from a widow whose husband died of mine-related illnesses.
He shows all the paperwork needed to get a R6,000 ($406 US) compensation payment for her. For starters, she needs to establish a bank account and deposit money in it. Then, she must submit fingerprints for herself, proof of her husband’s employment and a passport. If she wants to be able to share the compensation with her children, she’ll need a letter from the high court saying they are her late husband’s true beneficiaries. That’s assuming she’s even successful in getting compensated for the loss of her husband.
Her husband had applied for compensation in 2008, but died a few months later. She knows her husband worked for over two decades going back to at least 1980. But electronic records of mine workers only started in 1979; if you worked prior to that, it’s difficult to get your employment records, making it almost impossible to get compensation.
Isaacs, the compensation program manager, has a stack of files representing thousands of people. The applications for compensation may be years old by the time he and his small team of three get to them. The family may have moved; the applicant may be dead. He often travels from village to village, trying to piece it all together.
It costs more than R8,000 — just under USD $550 — to find the person who gets compensation, when sometimes the check is for R6,000.
He sees the futility in that. It’s almost hopeless work.
Isaacs keeps at it because he hopes the situation might improve — eventually. The Mineworkers Development Agency has started working with Jhpiego, a non-profit that started a program to provide tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS testing in rural villages. The MDA and Jhpiego both benefit — people not only filed paperwork to hopefully receive compensation, but they were also tested for tuberculosis and HIV.
Despite their best efforts, though, they’ve only found eight additional cases of tuberculosis. Stephanie Reinhardt, senior program officer for Jhpiego, wonders if the issue has to do with the areas where the screening took place — areas close to urban centers where people already have access to screening and healthcare, as opposed to more remote rural areas. A little less than 4,000 miners have registered with the MDA, resulting in 108 blood samples collected; an additional 137 miners were already on treatment.
“We expected to have a higher number,” she said.
There are men who have symptoms, but their sputum is negative. There’s no easy way to test for silicosis right now. Lung function tests and x-rays — not to mention biopsies that are sometimes needed — just aren’t available.
After six months or so, the disappointing results will likely lead to the program’s closure. It’s tough news for Isaacs, who has a hard time fundraising for help getting former miners compensation or job training.
Non-profit funding for issues like water, HIV and tuberculosis treatment in Lesotho is abundant. The Global Fund just announced a $30 million grant to fight tuberculosis in southern Africa. Isaacs can barely find a few thousand dollars to help with job training initiatives and compensation. If the program closes, he loses opportunities to solve his mysteries without the time and cost of searching one by one.
At a recent Jhpiego/MDA event, a group of people stand in a long line, waiting to register for compensation. Almost all of them walked many miles from their home villages to Setibing for the event. Draped in Basotho blankets, some have food to share, others hold whatever paperwork they have, using it to shield their eyes from the sun.
Jobere Moleteo stands near the front of the line. Like many other former miners, he ended up in subsistence farming, scraping by as best he can. At least five of his friends have tuberculosis; others have already died. Looking back, there were other job opportunities — construction, police, the army. At the time, mining felt like his best option.
Moleteo has six children, including several sons. Although some of them are of age to work in the gold mines, he insists he would never send them there. It’s just not worth it.
“Even if they offered a million dollars, I’d say no,” he says emphatically.
Moleteo has already received some compensation — around USD $2,000 after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis — but it wasn’t enough to support his family in the long run. Now that South Africa will allow class-action lawsuits by former miners, he’s thinking about getting involved, but isn’t optimistic about the potential for success.
“There’s not much hope,” he says matter-of-factly. His anger at the mining companies has long settled into resignation.
Retrenchment — when miners are sent home for health or other reasons — is not explained well. Miners know that even if you’ve worked at a mine for decades, the moment you develop a cough or have heaviness in your chest, you may be sent home with a pile of documents. Most do not get explanations, or are too angry about losing their jobs to listen to instructions for treatment.
Isaacs said he met one ex-miner who had a check for compensation in his documents after he was retrenched. He had no idea.
“Even now, they do not understand it,” he said. What do you do with a family who has never seen a check in their lives? How do you explain the system to them?
Coming home is a whole different issue. Most miners do not see their families more than once or twice a year. Children have grown up without a father.
“When they come back, they are unhealthy and unable to provide. Life still continues, but they are no longer working.”
This leads to depression, anger issues, and violence sometimes.
As a nurse, Matseleng Hanong sees this, too. She is young, and just graduated from school in 2011. It is overwhelming work to discuss TB and silicosis with the ex-miners and families who show up. They’ll leave if they don’t get money. They’re impatient.
She tries to tell them about the dangers of letting tuberculosis sit: “It’s treatable, but if you don’t get treatment, you can die”
As the court battle drags on, more former miners die. Three men on the claimants list from Lesotho have died while waiting for the silicosis trial to go ahead.
The right to sue mining companies in class action lawsuits, and the possible payouts, will change South Africa and Lesotho. Individuals didn’t have the money to sue their former employers, but with the ruling, groups like MDA and others can organize class action lawsuits, easing the financial burden.
Mining makes up much of the culture and economy of both countries. The resulting lawsuits could spur the mines to be better patrons. It could spur them to leave South Africa, a country already struggling with a poor economy.
Isaacs hopes that it will spur better things. He hopes for a consolidation of the compensation process. He dreams of a single one-stop shop where you can go to a notary, get court and employment records and be diagnosed with silicosis and tuberculosis. All that would be needed is representatives of several organizations, a team of paralegals, and a x-ray and lung function machine. He guesses that would cost around R1 million to set up.
“This will never happen, but it would be what would make the process go much quicker.”
Reported.ly’s Kim Bui visited South Africa and Lesotho on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.