Glimmer of hope for sick miners

By Kathryn Kimberley

BANGUMZI Balakisi is just one of tens of thousands of former gold miners from the Eastern Cape suffering from silicosis – a disease common among ex-mineworkers – who has joined what is hoped to be a new class action against three mining giants.

Balakisi, 58, from Peddie is the face of the 50 000 applicants expected to  join the civil suit.

If successful, this could be the biggest such case in South Africa.

Balakisi contracted tuberculosis and silicosis, an incurable respiratory disease, while working underground from 1974 to 1999.

Bangumzi Balakisi, 58, from Peddie, is one of the thousands of Eastern Cape former mineworkers suffering from silicosis, an incurable lung disease. PHOTOGRAPHER: EUGENE COETZEEBalakisi has accused his former employers of not providing him with the necessities to prevent him from contracting the deadly lung disease.

If successful, the suit could cost the three companies – AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold Mining Company and Gold Fields Limited – billions of rands.

The applications for class certification were issued out of the South-Gauteng High Court against the companies last week. They have not yet filed responding papers.

The new action is headed up by Charles Abrahams from Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys in Johannesburg.

Abrahams is waiting for the court to decide if the matter will be recognised as a class action.

It was the 2011 landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court, that miners could seek compensation in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, that paved the way for ailing miners across South Africa to claim for damages.

Weekend Post travelled to Peddie to speak to the sickly Balakisi, who was diagnosed with what former miners have labelled “minecosis” 13 years ago while working underground in Randfontein.

He said that for 25 years he had to work underground without the necessary equipment.

“They gave us some sort of a flimsy mask. It was like toilet paper tied with a string. When we removed the mask the inside was pitch black from the dust. This was when we knew the masks were not keeping the dust out of our lungs,” he said.

“But we knew that the mining bosses had access to quality masks that worked.”

He also claimed there were no on-site showers and employees had to wait until they got home to scrub the silica dust off their bodies.

“We did get to see a doctor every six months and have X-rays taken. Nothing was ever found to be wrong with me. But it was towards the end, in 1999 that I had a feeling something was the matter.”

He said he suffered from chest and stomach pains, and at night he experienced severe sweats.

It was during his final doctor’s visit in 1999 that he was informed he had contracted silicosis. Together with thousands of other workers, Balakisi that week received a R15 000 retrenchment package and was sent home.

A few months later, Balakisi was booked into the Nompumelelo Public Hospital in Peddie, where X-rays confirmed that he had TB and silicosis.

“Doctors assured me that minecosis was not curable.”

However for the past 13 years he has struggled to make ends meet. The only bread-winner in his family of four, in a good week Balakisi earns about R500 transporting township pensioners to do their shopping.

He said he battled to do any hard labour because he was weak and would start coughing uncontrollably.

In the event of the class certification being successful, Abrahams will issue summons to the mining companies, seeking declaratory relief.

The three companies will in turn be given an opportunity to declare whether they knew, or ought to have known, that exposure to silica dust caused diseases like silicosis and TB.

The court will then rule on whether the miners’ rights were violated. Should the declaratory issues be decided in favour of the claimants, the issue of damages will be addressed.

Harmony Gold investor relations manager Henrika Basterfield confirmed that the company was seeking legal advice. The other mining companies did not respond to queries.

This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, September 1, 2012.

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