By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo
Fainting during coughing fits and waking up on a drip in hospital has become a way of life for Elias Mpiyakhe Ngwenya (61). He is one of the lucky ones in that he lives just 25km from the Good Shepherd Hospital. Many ex-miners like Mpiyakhe who suffer from terminal silicosis from years working underground in South African gold mines can’t get to a hospital.
“I don’t recall how I ended up here in hospital; not to mention the day and time I was admitted. Whenever I’ve a severe attack of silicosis, I start vomiting blood and coughing persistently to the point of running short of breath. I then collapse from loss of blood and breath. My wife always asks a neighbour with a van to rush me to hospital,” Mpiyakhe tells Inhlase. He recently suffered another attack and is at the Siteki-based hospital which services poor communities in the Lubombo region in eastern eSwatini.
He coughs persistently throughout the interview and explains that he contracted silicosis towards the end of his 28 years in the gold mines. Inhlase has discovered that none of the five mines he had worked for bothered to state whether his services were terminated on the grounds of the occupational lung diseases. According to his record of service, three cited ‘system termination’ while one put ‘normal discharge’ as a reason.
Swaziland Migrant Mine Workers Association (SWAMMIWA) secretary general, Vama Jele, who doubles as the Southern African Miners Association (SAMA) regional coordinator, tells Inhlase that ‘system termination’ means his ‘departure was only done in the system without paperwork. Yet in the case of ‘normal discharge, his exit was based on ‘formal arrangements and paperwork was provided’. In a way, this had denied him critical information on his health condition. No wonder he was sent from pillar to post when seeking medical help for the life-threatening disease. This was concealed from him by his former employers and The Employment Bureau for Africa (TEBA) which had access to his medical records.
The latent silicosis period is 10-20 years after exposure to silica and it can sometimes develop after 5-10 years according to the https://www.nhs.uk. Ngwenya was exposed to the deadly silica dust for 28 years. Started working in 1979 at the age of 17, he blames his illness on exposure to silica in the apartheid SA era. He adds that the black miners were not given safety equipment like masks to protect themselves from inhaling the dust. His diagnosis with silicosis did not come as a surprise in 2021 after 14 years failing to get a proper diagnosis.
He counts himself lucky to get medical help from the Phocweni Military Clinic. On August 8, 2021, the medical practitioner diagnosed him with the silicosis symptoms. He then referred him to the silicosis and TB clinic housed at the Ralief Fitkin Memorial Hospital (RFM). On March 3, 2022, he was finally diagnosed with the incurable occupational lung disease.
The ex-miner was relieved when he finally found out what he was suffering from as it meant that he could access compensation from the Tshiamiso Trust which was set up by the South Africa’s six biggest mining companies to compensate current miners and ex-miners suffering from silicosis and work-related tuberculosis. These are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold, Sibanye Stillwater and Goldfields. In February 2020, they created Tshiamiso Trust after a landmark silicosis and TB class-action lawsuit to give effect to the R5 billion settlement agreement.
What also raised his hopes is that Tshiamiso compensates ex-miners who worked in the qualifying mines from March 12, 1965 to December 10, 2019. It also caters for the dependants of deceased mineworkers. Inhlase has established that Kusasalethu Mine, South Deep and West Driefontein Gold Mine he had worked for appear on the list of the qualifying mines.
Shortly after his diagnosis with silicosis, Mpiyakhe lodged his claim to the Mbabane-based Tshiamiso Trust Office housed within the TEBA offices. He complains about the long and agonizing waiting for claims. He reveals that no update has been forthcoming from the ‘uncooperative’ officers. He is unable to travel to the offices to follow up on his claim due to the mounting hospital and transport bills which are a financial burden.
“I’ve been to Tshiamiso Trust Offices to follow up on my claim. But the officers displayed an unfriendly attitude towards me. They had no time for me when seeking information on progress of my claim,” he says.
Inhlase can reveal that his case is by no means isolated in a country with an estimated 100 000 current miners and ex-miners. A spouse of another ex-miner, Thabsile Mavimbela, shares the same sentiment. She takes care of her ex-miner husband, Robert Majawonke Mavimbela. She pours out his frustration of the plight taking toll on all ex-miners and their dependants. Inhlase has seen his SA medical record dated February 18 2016 issued by Tau Lekoa Mine stating that he was diagnosed with first degree silicosis
“In terms of Section 48 (1) of the Occupational Disease in Mines and Works Act 1972, you are hereby notified that the Medical Certification Committee for Occupational Diseases has found you to be suffering from an occupational Disease, in the First Degree, Disease Certified: Silicosis. Concerning possible compensation the Compensation Commissioner for Occupational Diseases…will send you forms to complete,” it reads.
Mavimbela’s problem began when the local Tshiamiso workers disregarded his SA medical record and ordered him to start afresh the silicosis test at the local silicosis and TB clinic within the RFM premises. After lodging his claim in 2019, he nursed hope that he would get his compensation soon. This was not to be. He has neither received any compensation nor updates on his claim. Inhlase discovers that Hartebeestfontein Gold Mine which he worked for 15 years is one of the qualifying mines for compensation.
The ex-miner has swapped his breadwinner role with his wife and care-giver. When he returned home seriously ill, she was forced to look for a job in Mhlambanyatsi Forest to support her family. Luckily, her first-born, who qualified as a nurse in 2021, has taken over the responsibility to support his parents and sibling.
“I’ve lost hope that my husband will get the compensation in his lifetime. It pains me to think that by the time Tshiamiso pays it he will have passed on. I don’t think one will enjoy the fruits of his blood and sweats in his absence,” she says
According to SA-based Tshiamiso Trust acting chief executive officer, Luyanda Jiya, as of February 6, 2023, 1 750 claims had been formally lodged in eSwatini. Of the 1 750 claims, only 17 had been paid totalling R1 191 898.
She sheds light on the primary reasons for the compensation delay. She says the claim process is six months but it takes a bit longer for the deceased claims. An additional three months is for the agent that represents the mining companies to review the claim before it can be finalised.
“It is imperative that the Trust ensures that we are compliant and have the support of government, service providers, ex-mineworkers’ councils, and other stakeholders in these countries. The Trust does not conduct Benefit Medical Examinations and process the claims in eSwaitini,” she says.
Jiya explains that the deceased claims are a primary reason for delays because they are more complex. It is because the mineworker is not alive to undergo a medical examination and Tshiamiso relies on the medical records.
“There is a need to verify documentation that proves the identity of the claimant as a valid dependant of the deceased. This is one of the areas where we require government assistance, in this instance, ministries of health and home affairs, to assist the Trust in retrieving and verifying records,” she says.
She announces annual adjustments of the compensation levels in line with the SA Consumer Price Index to ensure that the value of the compensation amounts is not eroded by inflation. These have become effective from the beginning of February 2023. She stresses that the Tshiamiso compensation is once-off with no review.
The acting chief executive officer releases Tshiamiso maximum amounts of compensation. A claimant with a lung impairment up to 10% classified as Silicosis Class 1, gets R74 890.22. A Silicosis Class 2 claimant receives R160 479.04. A Silicosis Class 3 claimant is paid R267 465.07. There is a Special Award, which is up to R534 930.14 which provides relief to a small number of eligible claimants who are suffering from extraordinary disease conditions which exceed other silicosis claimants.
The dependant of the deceased eligible silicosis claimant who died between 12 March 1965 and 10 December 2019 gets R106 986.03, where silicosis is deemed to be the primary cause of death. Yet a dependant of the deceased eligible silicosis claimant who died between 01 January 2008 and terminating on the effective date, where the deceased had the condition receives R74 890.22.
A first degree tuberculosis sufferer is expected to have worked underground at a qualifying mine for two years and diagnosed with first degree tuberculosis within a year of working at least one shift at a qualifying mine to be paid R53 493.01. The first criteria apply to the second degree tuberculosis sufferer who receives R106 986.03.
In the absence of a medical report determining the degree of tuberculosis, an eligible claimant must: (i) have worked at a qualifying mine for 2 years between 12 March 1965 and 28 February 1994 and (ii). have been issued with a tuberculosis certificate but without indicating the degree of tuberculosis within a year of working at least one shift at a qualifying mine to receive R10 698.60. But if there is proof of first degree tuberculosis he gets R53 493.01 or R106 986.03 for the second degree tuberculosis.
A dependant of a deceased eligible tuberculosis claimant is eligible for the compensation. The dependant of the deceased who worked underground at a qualifying mine for two years is paid R106 986.03. The same applies to the deceased who died within a year of working at least one shift at a qualifying mine and where tuberculosis was the primary cause of the deceased’s death.
Tshiamiso needs to enjoy the support of government, service providers, ex-mineworkers’ councils, and other stakeholders to fulfil its mandate within the timeframe according to Jiya.
SWAMMIWA secretary general takes a swipe at the eSwatini government for sidelining the mineworkers’ associations thus creating barriers preventing Tshiamiso from speeding up compensation for the ex-miners. He says it is a cause for concern that ex-miners are dying life flies before getting the compensation.
Minister of Labour and Social Security, Phila Buthelezi, through his representative Magwabane Mdluli, who is Social Security Director, maintains that the mineworkers’ associations should not be involved in the social security issues affecting the ex-miners because they are a third party.
Instead of mulling over the Tshiamiso compensation, Mpiyakhe has resigned himself to die without his compensation. His spouse, Anne Ngwenya ekes out a living by doing odd jobs for the neighbors who pay her E50 to put food on the table. She is battling to come to grips with that her partner is going to die without getting his dues for toiling deep down in the bowels of the earth for 28 years.