Maseru, Lesotho - When Lebina Liphapang last went down the world's deepest gold mine, he was already feeling sick. He had worked underground in South Africa for 29 years, far away from his wife and children back home in Lesotho. He was a general labourer, a winch driver, then a stoker.
It was harsh, he says, working underground. The darkness, the heat. "In the early days, we didn't have mouth or nose protection. It was hardly bearable," he said.
He wanted to continue working, despite the conditions. But one day in 2003 he asked for his retirement package. "I thought: 'If I continue to work here I am going to die.' As much as it is necessary to go to South Africa and work and provide a living for my family, this work was completely hazardous to me."
He is one of tens of thousands of gold miners - many of them migrant workers like himself - who have registered for what is thought to be South Africa's largest class action lawsuit in history. Three law firms - Richard Spoor Attorneys, Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys and the Legal Resources Center - have filed affidavits against 31 mining companies accusing them of damaging their clients' health by exposing them to elevated levels of dust underground.
The suit charges the companies with 12 specific forms of neglect and endangerment, and is awaiting certification in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.
A slow death
Liphapang coughs, his entire body rocking, as if shaken by an inner tremor. The 60-year-old recently found out what is wrong with him. Almost ten years after returning to Lesotho, he was diagnosed with second degree silicosis, an incurable, ultimately fatal, lung disease contracted from the inhalation of silica dust - which can be found in gold mines.
The green furniture in his farmhouse is still wrapped in the plastic cover it came with. Liphapang is also wrapped in thick clothes to protect his body from the cold. Winter has hit the kingdom and, in the mountains, where Liphapang lives with his wife, temperatures frequently drop below zero.
I thought: 'If I continue to work here I am going to die.'
When he left what was then Anglogold Ashanti's Western Deep Levels mine he was paid a lump sum of 5000 Rand ($480). While working in the mines, he says, he was never diagnosed with silicosis, nor has he received compensation for the disease. "I didn’t know about silicosis," he admits. He thought he just had a cough, like most of the men coming back from the mines.
South Africa's gold industry was founded on the migrant labour system, a system that heavily linked to the apartheid era. Black men from poverty-stricken areas across the south of the continent were cheaper to employ than locals. Even now, more than half of the total workforce in the mining sector is recruited from neighbouring countries. Once they leave the mines, however, they disappear from the radar of the occupational health institutions and the mining houses.
According to the South African Department of Labour, there are currently as many as 2,000,000 former gold miners suffering from silicosis, which can break out up to two decades after exposure to silica dust. Some people speak of an epidemic that has hit Southern Africa.
Richard Spoor is one of them. The human rights attorney initiated the case against Anglo American, Anglogold Ashanti, and the 29 other mining companies, alleging that they knew "of the dangers posed to miners by silica dust for more than a century". In 2011, Spoor set the precedent for this litigation when he won a case against Anglogold Ashanti, allowing sick miners to sue their former employer for compensation.
"There have always been laws, going back a hundred years, that say workers may not be exposed to large quantities of dust," he says in his Johannesburg office. "Every year we produce thousands of sick workers, so clearly they are all exposed to excessive amounts of dust. But no-one has ever been prosecuted."
Every year we produce thousands of sick workers, so clearly they are all exposed to excessive amounts of dust. But no-one has ever been prosecuted.
Anglo American declined to make comment for this report. The company has reportedly set a policy forbidding its staff from commenting on requests relating to silicosis.
Anglogold Ashanti spokesman Alan Fine said that "it is an unsatisfactory situation where miners in labouring states are concerned and the health care infrastructure is not sufficient". Fine explained that the company was planning to extend a clinic project into Lesotho and other labour-sending countries, but cannot not provide information about when or how that is going to happen. "It is not easy to establish those things," he added. Fine retired shortly after speaking to Al Jazeera.
In South Africa, one of the world's largest gold producers, silicosis was identified as an occupational lung disease in 1911. The implementation of the Miners' Phthisis Act of 1922 allowed white miners to receive compensation for diseases contracted in the mines. In 1930, the first conference dedicated to the illness was held in Johannesburg.
The current health and safety legislation, however, excludes gold miners.
For mine workers, there is a separate act, named the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA), which for a long time "only served the white and coloured workers", explained Thuthula Balfour-Kaipa, the head of the health department at the Chamber of Mines, an institution funded by the mining companies.
The majority of the miners have been and still are black. Up until the 1990s, black men comprised some 90 percent of the mines' workforce, a statistic which has not changed significantly. The majority of those men traditionally came from countries other than South Africa.
According to Balfour-Kaipa, the compensation act has not been implemented properly, even after it was reformed following the fall of apartheid in 1994. "The men are getting less compensation than they should - if they get anything," she said.
Understanding the problem
Balfour-Kaipa does not blame the mining companies, but the government. She says the lack of a functioning public health system in the provinces or countries of origin of the migrant workers is at fault. "The Eastern Cape is one of the most dysfunctional provinces in South Africa," she said. "For Lesotho and Mozambique, there isn't even legislation about occupational health."
Anglogold's Alan Fine identified another obstacle: "Awareness and accessibility." After many conferences and extensive research on silicosis, awareness of the illness still appears to be low in labour-sending areas, especially in those where education levels are low. Like Lesotho.
Dr Thabiso Kolobe is a general practitioner from Maseru, Lesotho, who only learned about the disease last year.
"Silicosis is not a common word here," he said. "Doctors don't think that way, they are not aware of this disease when they see an X-ray." Once a worker returns to his home, chances drop that he will ever be diagnosed with silicosis.
"They just die outside in the villages," says Kolobe. "Because there is no organised service, no database of ex-miners, no screening system... Many of those men live in rural areas, so even if it's clearly indicated that they have to come for a screening every six months, they'd have to travel far."
From the village where Lebina Lephipang lives it is a day's trip to the nearest hospital. His house is built on a steep hill, a 15 minute walk from the nearest road that leads to Maseru. The nearest hospital dedicated to treating miners is about 250 kilometres away - in South Africa.
"I am not getting treatment right now. Every once in a while I can afford tablets," he said. When he sells a package of maize, for instance, he can go to Morija, a local hospital, to buy a package of medication.
"I cough a lot, I spit out red sputum, I can't work," he laments, staring at the cold tiles in front of him.
"He can't even milk the cows," adds his wife. Lebina Liphapang nods sorrowfully.
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This report was produced with the support of the Facing Finance campaign.