1 June 2015
When Oupa Sonopi started working in the mine at the age of 25, he was never informed of the high risk of contracting tuberculosis (TB).
It was only in 2010 when he was 30 years old, lying in a hospital bed, that the reality hit home. He spent one month under specialised care. Sonopi, who is originally from Free State, was out of work for six months while receiving his treatment.
“Although we would hear about colleagues in the mines being treated for TB, I was not aware that the environment we worked under could be a huge contributor to me getting TB. We were not informed when we were recruited,” he says.
According to Sonopi, most of his colleagues who work at the gold mines in Carletonville, a small gold-mining town 86 kilometres west of Johannesburg, suffer from airborne diseases such as silicosis, pulmonary TB and other lung infections such as chronic obstructive airways disease and lung cancer.
High risk of TB
Data from the Department of Health indicates that about half-a-million mineworkers in South Africa and about two million former mineworkers, spread across Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, are at a high risk of contracting TB, just like Sonopi.
They are vulnerable to lung disease because of their exposure to multiple risk factors, including their overcrowded living settlements, which usually increases the risk of infection with airborne diseases. The high rates of HIV infection as well as their exposure to silica dust in the deep mine shafts – which are often poorly ventilated – also increase the risks.
Sonopi’s sentiments are shared by his colleague, 54-year-old Phumlani Skame, who is originally from Eastern Cape. Skame, who has worked in the mine for 27 years, was also exposed to TB in 2010.
He partly blames the high risk miners face of contracting such diseases to the lack of proper education about the illnesses. But he also says the information around compensation for occupational diseases is often confusing.
“After my hospital stay in 2010 for example, I was made to fill in forms by my employer which we took to Johannesburg. We were only told that the forms were for compensation – but since then we have never received any communication nor we do not know what happened to them.”
It was cases like these that prompted the government to launch Project Ku-Riha at the end of May. Ku-Riha, a Xitsonga word for compensation, is being implemented by the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases and the Compensation Commission for Occupational Diseases (CCOD) of the Department of Health.
The objective of the project is to speed up compensation to current and former mine workers who have submitted valid and compensable claims. According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, it is the result of collaboration and engagement between the government and eight companies currently or historically involved in gold mining.
“The department has identified 103 000 active and ex-miners with compensable claims for the pneumoconiosis which includes silicosis asbestosis, TB, chronic obstructive airways disease, progressive systematic sclerosis and lung cancer among others,” Motsoaledi told reporters gathered in Carletonville on 28 May.
Authorities have set aside R1.5-billion that will go towards compensation. Workers from other countries who have worked in South African mines are also eligible to apply for the fund.
“Yes I am here to pay back the money,” Motsoaledi told the crowd, which included miners who received their confirmation letters for the approval of the compensation as well as unions representing the miners. But he acknowledged that compensation could never be enough to address the difficulties that the affected miners faced.
Change in law
“Compensation will never be enough. We need to change the laws to ensure that our miners are protected,” he said. The fund derives its income from levies paid by mines themselves.
The minister said thousands of people had died without ever receiving or even being aware of the country’s Benefit Medical Examination and the autopsies their families were entitled to under the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act of 1973.
However, the CCOD has such a huge backlog of claims from mine workers with lung disease that it will take years to process.
CCOD commissioner Barry Kistnasamy said 200 000 claims had been checked while about 500 000 were yet to be touched. A preliminary analysis of the claims held by the CCOD showed that more than half (56%) were for TB and 17% for silicosis.
These claims are then assessed by the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases’ certification committee, which determines whether or not they qualify for pay-outs, which usually range from R3 000 to R100 000. Other work-related injuries and diseases, such as loss of limb or finger, are dealt with by the Department of Labour.
Among the challenges identified in the slow processing of the CCOD funds include lack of capacity, rejection by the banks, as well as well as missing crucial information of the miners.
One stop service centre
“We are trying to correct that,” the minister said, adding that the government’s One Stop Service Centre for miners was proof of this commitment.
The facility, which has been built specially for former miners, miners and the community of miners, provides medical, rehabilitation, social and financial support services as well as assistance with compensation, pension and provident funds. It also helps in updating a database for current and former mine workers.
In addition, the centre provides health promotion services such as blood pressure screening and HIV counselling and testing as well as TB counselling and testing.
There are two such one stop services – one in Carletonville and one in Mthatha in Eastern Cape – which serve hundreds of miners and former miners. Other projects include regular mandatory TB screenings for miners and mining communities.
For its historically paper-based files, the commission has also begun building an electronic registry; it is hoped this will help speed up the compensation process.
Compensation at last
“Yes I am happy, I am very happy about this project. This is the first for us. It shows that our government and employees are committed to improving our lives,” Sonopi said. “But I am sad because some of my colleagues who were admitted to hospital with me in 2010 have since passed on leaving their young children behind. They have taken a very long time to compensate us.”
But he was happy that he finally received his compensation. “For once I will not pay any debts from this money; instead I will use it on me. I will be taking out my family and enjoy even if it’s just for this one month.”