Silicosis deal prompts tears

Claimants in the silicosis and tuberculosis class action say they are relieved the matter is reaching closure after a historic settlement between their legal representatives and gold mines was reached last week.

This comes after the Legal Resources Centre, Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys and Richard Spoor Attorneys, on behalf of thousands of mine workers, reached a settlement with the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group, which will see compensation paid to eligible mine workers who are suffering from silicosis and tuberculosis – including the relatives of those who have since died from the diseases.

The class action settlement is worth R5 billion and comes after three years of intense negotiations between the parties.

For the mine workers and their families, the settlement brings a sigh of relief.

Bongani Nkala (64) was a general worker at Harmony Gold from 1981 and was able to provide for his family, which included his wife, four children and six grandchildren. However, in 1997 he was told by the mining company that he was no longer fit for the job and was booted out. He received just R2 000 in compensation.

Speaking from his home in Khambi village near Mthatha, he said his world turned upside down, but the worst was to come – he later found out that he had TB.

“I have been in and out of hospitals over the years. My life has not been the same since I returned from the mines. I have been diagnosed with TB, hypertension and diabetes. It is very cruel what these mining companies do to us – exploiting us and taking advantage of our illiteracy. They use us as cheap labour and, when they are done, they discard us and send us home to die. We remain poor while they swim in money,” said Nkala.

He said he was glad that the matter had been concluded.

“I don’t care how much I will get, it’s better than nothing. Many of our brothers who have worked in the mines died poor because this case was dragging on for too long,” he said.

Once he gets the money, Nkala plans to reopen his spaza shops and fix his van, which has been standing in his yard for 10 years because he did not have enough money to have it fixed. He had to sell all of his livestock to repay the loan he took out from a bank to buy it.

“Things are going to change. I am going to make sure that my homestead is fixed. I will send my children and grandchildren to school, and invest some of the money to make sure that the family is taken care of after I am gone,” said Nkala, who is now a single father because his wife died in 2013.

A stone’s throw from Nkala’s home lives the Mankayi family, where Thembekile Mankayi is buried.

Mankayi, a father of 10 children and nine grandchildren, died in 2011 before he could get compensation for the silicosis he contracted during the years he worked underground at the Vaal Reefs gold mines.

Credited for having launched a spirited fight for compensation for former mine workers who had contracted silicosis and TB during work, Mankayi died a poor and bitter man, according to his widow, Nozuzile (59), who now has to take care of their large family alone.

“My husband had been eager to see this matter resolved. But the mining companies used their money to ensure that it dragged on. Now he is no more and will never see the compensation he fought for and sacrificed so many years for. It is very unfair. I still find it hard to believe that a settlement has been reached. I will only believe it when I see it. My husband and I battled for this for many years and we have not seen anything positive come out of it,” she said.

Nozuzile, who stands to benefit from the payout as her late husband’s dependant, said she wanted to send her children to school once the money was paid out.

“Some of my children are still at school, while others have dropped out due to the hardships we faced all these years. I want to make sure that they complete their education and become independent. I also want to unveil my husband’s tombstone because we have not done that due to lack of funds. That is the least I can do for him because it his money after all,” she said.

Nowinile Mankayi (98), the mother of the late mine worker, was worried that she would also die before her son’s compensation was paid.

“Those mines must pay up now. What are they waiting for? My son dedicated his life to working a thankless job, and he died poor and miserable. At least his children will be taken care of. He cannot die in vain,” she said.

Carina du Toit, an attorney from the Legal Resources Centre who represented the claimants, said: “The settlement is the product of very long hours and very hard work. There was a real good-faith attempt from both sides to find a solution that compensates as many mine workers and the surviving dependants of silicotic mine workers as possible.”

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