Patrick Sitwayi lives in Upper Mcambalala with his wife, five children and three grand children. He is 57 years old and has silicosis from working underground in the gold mines for 22 years. He did not receive any compensation for his illness and is unable to support his family without a job. He has to walk with crutches because his toes became infected and were amputated. He says that this is because of the primitive safety equipment and hot working conditions on the mines, causing excess sweating that collected in his plastic gumboots.
Leseli Kompi is the 19-year-old son of Maphatsoe Kompi who died in October 2013 from pulmonary tuberculosis (TB of the lungs) at the age of 63 years. His mother died in 2012 and he is now left to look after his 15 year-old sister, Naleli. They survive off the provident fund, which his father left. The initial amount was R33 367, they are now left with R6 687. Although they have a little money to survive on and Leseli spends his time looking after the animals that his father left, he will soon need to get a paid job as a herd boy in order to pay for his sister’s education.
Sekhobe Letsie is 72 years old and lives on the outskirts of Maseru, Lesotho. Born in 1942 he started work in the mines in 1970, when he was 28 years old. He now has four children and lives off the little bit of farming he can manage and money from his son. He is confused about his medical condition and was adamant that he had never been taken for medical screening while on the mines. He has silicosis and has not received any compensation.
Mthuthuzeli Mtshange has 8 children. His family live in Flagstaff, 390km from Queenstown. He works as a gardener in Queenstown to make money to send home for his family. He is paid R50 a day (approx. £2.40 or $3.70). He lives in a township on the outskirts of Queenstown as it is all he can afford. Mr Mtshange worked on the gold mines for 35 years and was retrenched without reason in 1996. He was diagnosed with silicosis and tuberculosis and received no compensation from the mines.
Makatleho Selibo is the Widow of Mahola Selibo who worked as a team leader at President Steyn mine in Welkom. He worked underground for 33 years. He passed away in 2013 and suffered from tuberculosis and silicosis. He did not receive any compensation from the mines. On the weekends at the mines he would run a shoe repair business, fixing the broken soles of his colleagues; shoes. Mr and Mrs Selibo had four children and she now survives on subsistence farming and livestock.
Dyamara Jibhana lives in Whittlesea, Eastern Cape with his brother. He worked on the mines for 39 years and received no compensation when he was diagnosed with silicosis and sent home. He worked at Beatrix Gold Mine in the Witwatersrand Basin in Johannesburg until 2008. He is now 65 years old and waiting to hear whether he will receive some money to help him live with his condition.
Zwelakhe Dala passed away on 30 March 2015. His death certificate just states that he died of natural causes. He was 55 years old and was suffering from silicosis. He worked on the gold mines for 28 years and received no compensation when he got sick from exposure to the silica dust. “It is too painful. If my husband was not working on the mines, he would still be alive.” says his wife, Nosipho. Mrs Dala raised their five children on her own, for the most part. She is now left with no income except for a small pension.
Mncedisi Dlisani worked in the explosives team at Western Areas Mine. He would drill the holes, place the dynamite and light the fuse from a distance away. This exposed him to a large amount of dust. “Sometimes we used masks and sometimes we didn’t. There wasn’t always a supply." he said. He was diagnosed with Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB of the lungs) and spent nine months in the mine hospital. During that time he did not receive his monthly wage to send home and so his wife, Nokwakha, who had to beg relatives for money to feed her family. He left the job two years later and returned to Butterworth where he spent another 9 months in hospital. After 15 years of service at Western Areas Gold Mine, he received no compensation for his illness. Due to bad weather and poor building materials the walls of their main house collapsed. They now live in a one-room rondavel (round hut) next door as they do not have the money to repair it.
Matsekelo Masupha is the widow of Mokonyana Robert Masupha who passed away in 2008 after working for 29 years on the gold mines. He was diagnosed with silicosis in 2003 and was compensated R89 000. Mrs Masupha now earns a living by farming and selling traditional medicine. “Considering the hardship I face now. I would say that I am disappointed in the company that my husband worked for. He went there as a young man, he spent his entire life there but he came back with nothing to show for his work.
Noebejara Tau is 70 years old and lives in Mafeteng, Lesotho. He worked on the mines between 1972 and 2000 as a loader driver. He was diagnosed with silicosis and retrenched. Although he did receive a small amount of compensation, he now has to depend on subsistence farming and bartering with his neighbours in order to acquire the food he needs to feed himself and his wife.
Monde Mxesibe lives alone in Zagwityi near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. He is 62 years old and worked on the mines for 26 years. He has Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB of the lungs) and in 1996 the mine told him that he would be compensated. He has still received nothing. He says that the scariest thing about working on the mine was the lift journey to go underground. About 75 people would cram into a three-storey cage, which was held by just one steel cable. He heard that the rope had once broken on another mine and everyone in the lift had died. He tried hard not to think about it and focused on the money he was making to send home to his parents. Mr Mxesibe’s big dream in life was to own a car but he never managed to save enough money.
Toulang Mako , 65, lives in Mohale’s Hoek, Lesotho. He worked on the mines for 21 years as a miner’s assistant and would sing in a traditional group at the weekends. During this time he contracted tuberculosis on three separate occasions and in 2012 he discovered that he had silicosis. Although he had a medical when he was retrenched he was not informed about the silicosis and was never compensated.
Bongani Nkala is the first named person in the lawsuit against the gold mines and for that reason he is the miner most often named in the media. In truth he has no knowledge of this and is unaware of the many articles that have mentioned him over the last few months. Mr Nkala worked at Harmony Gold for 15 years and was sent home from the mine hospital after six months of tuberculosis treatment. He was diagnosed with silicosis and was paid R50 000 in compensation (approx. $3,600 or £2,360). He used the compensation money to buy a Toyota Avanza van and worked as a taxi driver until 2009 until he could no longer afford the maintenance on his car. “We were always aware that something could happen" he said as he described a time when seven of his fellow workers died in a rock fall about six metres away from him. "The hardhats were squashed flat under the rocks," recalled. "The safety procedures were not followed," he continued"We weren’t given dust masks and we were never told about the dangers of silica dust.
Masiko Somi fell sick while home on leave. He had been screened at work but had not been told that there was anything wrong with him. He travelled to see a private doctor in Kokstad in KwaZulu-Natal who advised him to stay at home for a while to get better. He could not communicate with the mine and when he returned to work he was dismissed because he was late. Masiko had worked at President Steyn Mine for 19 years and was not compensated for his silicosis. “I have tried to get work for the last 20 years but my health has not allowed me to,” he said “ We survive by getting temporary jobs from neighbours, building fences and ploughing mielie (corn) fields”.
Zama Gangi , 60, organised traditional dancing competitions when he worked at South Deep Gold Mine. The competitions were usually between different mines and were judged by their supervisors. There were no prizes, it was for fun, pride and to keep their heritage alive, he recalled. In 2007 Mr Gangi was diagnosed with silicosis and was told to bring his eldest son to replace him. He was retrenched in 2008 after 19 years and was paid no compensation. Speaking about the dangers of working in the gold mines he said: “Most times I would feel sad when I left my family because the working conditions are not good underground. When you are a winch driver you are risking your life. I had fears of leaving them behind in case I died on the mines…I worried I would never see them again.”
Nanabezi Mgoduswa now works as a security guard at Mantshangase Clinic inBizana in the Eastern Cape. Although he suffers from silicosis and drug-resistant tuberculosis, he has to support his wife and two children as he received no compensation from the mines when he was dismissed in 2009. During his 21 years on the mine he would take part in traditional dance competitions with his group named Sondela (Come Closer).
Xolisile Butu is 60 years old and lives in Skhobeni in the Eastern Cape with his 86 year old mother Adelaide. His wife works in Komani and earns the money for the household – she only comes home once a month. Mr Butu was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis (TB of the lungs) in 1992 after working on the mines for 7 years. He received R1000 (approx. £50 or $72) in compensation. Mr Butu recalls what he calls “the problems between Xhosas and Zulus” on the mines. The fights got so bad that the police would be called and would break them up using teargas. After a while they started to live in separate dorm rooms.
Matona Mabea , 62, was a team leader in Randfontein Mine where he worked for 30 years. He is from Ha Makoanyane in Lesotho and would travel to South Africa for work. Initially they would come home every six months, but as the borders became more controlled, they would only be allowed to cross the border once a year. Now that he has been retrenched, with R27 000 compensation for silicosis, he supports his wife and children by growing maize meal and exchanging it with his neighbours for other food. When they need money, they rely on their daughters to send money home.
Siporono Phahlam gained his certificate in blasting in 1998. This was the highest-level position that he could achieve in his job. He could earn between thirty and forty thousand Rand extra a month depending on the amount of blasting work that he did. He had been given a house in 1980 by the mine, inside the mine perimeter, where his wife and family could live with him. He enjoyed his work and he was one of the few that was being relatively well paid for it. After 32 years work on the gold mines, Mr Phahlone was diagnosed with silicosis and discharged from his job. He was paid no compensation. He had to return the Bizana, in the Eastern Cape, and survive by growing vegetables and grazing livestock. “I loved my job very much and when I left many people cried. They could not believe it because they knew how much it meant to me.
Kenneth Nqose , 57 years old, lives in Lower Woodhouse in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape. He has been married to Nonuseko for 30 years and they have three children. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and silicosis in 1997 and spent two months in the mine hospital. During this time he was retrenched and given R18 000 (approx. £850) as a retrenchment package. He was given no compensation for his occupational illness and was sent home where he had to pay his own medical bills. Mr Nqose was not present when either of his children were born. Mrs Nqose would write him a letter to inform him about the new child. The baby would then stay unnamed until she received a letter back after several months giving his chosen name for the child.
Thom Pierce is a talented photographer and filmmaker, who was born in 1978 on the island of Jersey, United Kingdom and currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. Thom shoots a lot of documentary, portrait and fine art photography. Pierce uses photography to explore the cultural, historical and social concerns present in post-colonial South Africa. His work has been featured in The Guardian, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, NPR and many others blogs, magazines and news publications.
The high court in Johannesburg will soon decide if a class action lawsuit can be laid against 32 gold mining companies in South Africa. Three law firms are representing a group of miners who are applying for this class action on behalf of all miners suffering from Silicosis or Pulmonary Tuberculosis as a result of working in the gold mines.
Silicosis is a preventable but incurable lung disease that is contracted in the gold mines through inadequate protection from silica dust. Miners who contract silicosis get tired and out of breath quickly and are prone to lung infections, respiratory failure and TB.
Public interest law organisation SECTION27, is representing the Treatment Action Campaign and Sonke Gender Justice, who have been admitted as friends of the court. They will ensure that the impact on communities, the health system, women and children is part of the legal representations.
Over a period of 20 days in September and October 2015, I travelled around South Africa’s Eastern Cape, into Lesotho and up to Johannesburg to find and photograph the 56 sick miners and widows.
“The Price of Gold” was made in partnership with the Treatment Action Campaign and Sonke Gender Justice.