Virginia, South Africa -"The mines eat men. Even when you have left them, the mines may be eating you" - so goes a miners' song in the Sotho language.
The powerful words reflect a scourge that has stalked South African miners for more than century. Now, the prevalance of tuberculosis, silicosis and other occupational lung diseases have spurred the biggest class action lawsuit the country has seen.
Four thousand former gold mine workers have filed affidavits in the High Court of South Africa, launching three simultaneous lawsuits against mining giants Anglogold Ashanti, Goldfields and Harmony Gold.
The miners, who are all ill with lung disease they contracted while working underground, are suing the mining firms for damages, which are expected to run into billions of rands (millions of US dollars).
"This case will set an important precedent for mines to keep a healthy working environment, and is important in our quest to seek justice for this marginalised sector of our society," says Danzel van Zyl, an attorney at Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys, the law firm leading the lawsuit.
"The mines are still maintaining that they did everything by the book and maintain their lack of culpability," van Zyl adds.
One of these former mine workers is Maliso Mahlozini, who now lives in a tin shack in the gold-mining town of Virginia, three hours from Johannesburg.
|Maliso Mahlozini contracted tuberculosis after working for Harmony Gold for 29 years [Jonathan Wood/Al Jazeera]
Mahlozini - now in his 60s - contracted TB 15-years ago after working for Harmony Gold for 29 years.
"The mines make us sick and then they drop us like a used condom," he says.
During his time at the mines he says he contracted TB numerous times, until finally he was too ill to work and the mine let him go. He was also left with partial blindness in his right eye from an accident underground.
However, after he was laid off he had no more access to medical facilities, medication or check-ups. While some gold mining firms provide medical facilities for check-ups, these are in urban areas, while most former mine workers live in rural areas.
"When the mines can't use you anymore, they dismiss you, and then they don't want anything to do with you," he says.
He then applied to the mine's compensation scheme for benefits. He waited 10 years for his compensation, which amounted to 80,000 rand ($9,350). The money has been used up, and Mahlozini is now too ill to work. After working the mines for most of his adult life, he has no other skills.
"Almost all the men in this village come from the mines, and most of them, hundreds of them, are sick," says Mahlozini.
A walk through the sandy shack settlement backs up these claims: there is an endless stream of men presenting their letters of dismissal. All of them have either TB, silicosis - a potentially fatal lung-scarring disease caused by silica dust - or other lung disease. They have no access to medical care and have received little or no compensation since leaving the mines.
High rates of TB
A minuscule amount of research has been conducted by the government and mining companies into the number of former miners who have contracted disease. Historically, the mining companies have only examined the problem among white miners.
In 2011, Jill Murray and Tony Davies of the School of Public Health at the University of the Witwatersrand wrote an article on the issue. They found the highest rates of TB in the world are found among South African miners, of which there are about 160,000 sufferers. The incidence of TB among gold miners increased from 806 per 100,000 in 1991 to 3,821
in 2004, the last year for which data at a national level exists.
The proportion of black gold miners with silicosis found through autopsies was 32 percent in 2007. The study estimated the amount of unpaid compensation owed to gold miners with lung disease at 20bn rand ($2.3bn).
Richard Spoor is a human rights attorney who has worked regularly with miners. "Up to now, the mining industry hasn't really had any incentive to deal with silicosis because they've enjoyed legal immunity," says Spoor. "There have been no civil claims, and there has never been a criminal prosecution of mining companies for exposing workers to silica dust."
He says through the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA), a former mine worker with lung function impairment of more than 40 percent can be paid "trivial" damages up to a maximum of about 90,000 rand ($10,500), with the typical amount 35,000 rand ($4,100).
But Spoor adds that fewer than 5 percent of eligible former miners receive compensation.
"The fact that mines are allowed to treat their workers this way, and that the problem hasn't been remedied 18 years after apartheid ended, is a measure of the political and economic power of the mining industry," says Spoor.
Jaine Roberts, director of research at Rhodes University, who has done extensive research on former gold mine workers in the Eastern Cape province, says the ODMWA is a highly problematic system, because miners are paid a small, once-off amount with no access to medical treatment.
Furthermore, many miners are unaware of the ODMWA, as few companies provide information about the legislation. And until 2011, the ODMWA included a clause that made mining employers immune to legal action by current or former employees for lung diseases contracted in the mines.
But last year the Constitutional Court decided in favour of Thembikile Mankhayi, who contracted silicosis while working for AngloGold Ashanti, awarding him damages of 2.6m rand ($304,000), and opening the door for other workers exposed to harmful gases and dust.
"If I could talk to the CEO of Harmony I would tell him that I got sick on his mine, and I need money so I can live."
- Rob Ntsapi, former miner
The simultaneous lawsuits are expected to be heard next year, and will take between three and five years before a judgement is handed down.
Alan Fine, a spokesperson for AngloGold Ashanti, says "as a result of efforts to improve underground dust levels and to reduce exposure, dust levels and rates of silicosis at AngloGold Ashanti's mines have shown a consistent and encouraging downward trend. The rate of silicosis at AGA has nearly halved from 14 cases/per 1000 employees/per year in 2007 to 8 cases/per 1000 employees/per year in the year ended March 2012."
He says while the statutory compensation scheme needs to be improved, the company has established, along with other gold-mining firms, a project designed to assist former miners to be diagnosed and receive assistance in making claims.
Harmony Gold and Goldfield opted not to comment.
But Spoor says the mines' efforts are not enough. Addressing the issue will be expensive, he says, as it means improving ventilation in an atmosphere almost 3km underground. And, Spoor notes, personal protective equipment such as respirators and dust masks are not compulsory in South African gold mines, unlike in foreign mines.
Furthermore, he says, black mine workers are spending more time underground than ever before. While miners in many other countries work for eight-hour shifts, in South Africa they work between 10-12 hours a day.
Rob Ntsapi, who also lives in Virginia, was dismissed after 40 years of working with second-degree TB. He says even after seeing doctors while working for Harmony, workers live in cramped conditions in hostels where TB spreads quickly. Ntsapi's payslip showed an annual salary of 30,000 rand ($3,460).
He struggled to believe when he read that last year Harmony CEO Graham Briggs took home a 10m rand ($1.15m) salary. Mark Cutifani, AngloGold's CEO, received 29m rand ($3.4m) in pay, and Nick Holland, Goldfield's CEO, cashed in shares and finished with a total package of 33m rand ($3.8m).
"If I could talk to the CEO of Harmony, I would tell him that I got sick on his mine, and I need money so I can live," Ntsapi says. "The mines are going to kill many people. They are very dangerous."