The ignored and silent killer

Somewhere in Britain, someone’s granddaughter is shopping for a Gucci handbag. Somewhere in rural Limpopo, someone’s granddaughter is bringing a breathless old man a glass of water in the desperate hope that it will bring him some relief. He is frail and in pain. This man could easily be my grandfather or your uncle. When I saw him, I already knew he had mesothelioma and my heart wept. I knew that the chances of his living long enough to receive compensation were nil.

Our people were exploited by British companies that owned asbestos mines. In the late 19th century, people toiled in unregistered asbestos mines, where hardly any work records were kept, especially of the black workforce. How, then, can we rely on these records in exchange for possible compensation, when research clearly shows that there is very little else that can paint the typical radiological picture of asbestos-related disease but asbestos itself? Even if these records existed at some point, over time, people move house and natural disasters destroy documentation.

Production and mining of asbestos continued despite scientific evidence associating crocidolite asbestos with mesothelioma. Even children were used in the industry – they trampled asbestos into shipping bags, which is a horror deserving of a page in South African history books.

Even though occupational exposure to asbestos stopped in 2002 and the British companies have since packed up and left, the fibres that had settled in our grandfathers’ chests continue to cause suffering.

While it is a fact that the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act is inefficient, I would like to argue that it is even more so in the case of former mine workers who were exposed to asbestos. The act simply fails to acknowledge the harmful history of asbestos mining and production.

Haunted by the faces of the many former mine workers I have examined, I know with certainty that expecting 40-year-old work records from claimants with proven mesothelioma, or any other asbestos-related disease for that matter, and no proof of exclusive environmental exposure, is nothing short of heartless. Expecting the claimants to wait for years for compensation is cruel.

To the credit of lawyer Richard Spoor, there are private trusts that are doing great work in terms of compensation for their deserving beneficiaries. I am, however, convinced that there are ways to make life more bearable for the many who were exposed but unfortunately cannot be catered for by these trusts.

When I was little, I was convinced that sweets brought home by those working in working in Gauteng or elsewhere were fancier than those bought from a local store. Little did I know that they not only brought special sweets with them, but also carried lethal fibres in their lungs. Long after the asbestos dust has settled, death looms near for the faceless former asbestos mine worker.

Many of us admire you, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, for being the diligent servant you are. I believe you will find the issue herein worthy of a cup of coffee with the higher powers at the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Mokgadi Mothemela, an occupational medicine specialist in Limpopo

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