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A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
A miner works underground at a Johannesburg gold mine. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

Vuyo Mpiti* was one of more than 4,000 former Anglo American mineworkers who took their former employers to court to seek compensation for the silicosis they contracted on the gold mines. The mines settled in 2016, and the Q (h) ubeka Trust was set up to pay compensation to the mineworkers. Mpiti died at the age of 68 in 2018, a few months after receiving his payout. His story is told in the report of the Trust, which wound up in April after paying out more than R420m in claims.

Since the earliest years of industrial gold mining, workers — black and white — have been victims of silicosis, a lung disease caused by silica dust that makes it hard to breathe, resulting in a poor quality of life, inability to work and earn a living and at times causes early death. Silica dust in the lungs predisposes to Tuberculosis (TB) and a worker with silicosis often has repeated episodes of TB with resultant further scarring of the lungs.

The mining companies have known this, and so have the government authorities, for over 100 years. Despite this knowledge, mine owners failed to control dust and prevent disease. And the government failed to police occupational health risks adequately or to put in place fair and preventive compensation for mineworkers who contracted silicosis from their underground work.

Vuyo Mpiti was born in the Transkei, in apartheid SA in March 1950. He died, close to his birthplace, in 2018, just four months after receiving R162,805 from the Q (h) ubeka Trust. He had been a mineworker from the age of 25 years.

He started off working at Grootvlei (managed by Gencor) in 1975. His next contract was at Libanon (managed by Gold Fields). In 1984 he got a job as a machine driller at Western Deep Levels (managed by Anglo American/AngloGold).

In 1995, at a routine medical examination by the government Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases (MBOD), he was diagnosed with TB. His weight was recorded as 65kg. He received treatment for the TB, but the TB “reactivated” seven years later, in 2001, the year he ended his mine employment at the same AngloGold mine, now renamed “TauTona”. He was 52 years old and had worked underground in gold mines for 27 years.

The AngloGold Health Service, West Rand indicated that Mpiti had completed his TB treatment, but also that he had extensive fibrosis in one lung. The doctor submitted him to the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases for compensation.

In 2009, Anglo American Plc (which had moved to London as an international mining company) waved “a golden goodbye” to SA. “After steadily reducing our stake in AngloGold Ashanti over the past decade, we finally part company by selling our remaining shares, closing our chapter on investing in gold,” said Anglo American on its website.

In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled — after some five years of court battles — that mineworkers could sue their employers for compensation if they suffered from occupational diseases. The same year, on the basis of the court judgment, international human rights lawyers Leigh Day & Co joined up with Mbuyisa Neale Attorneys to launch a court case for compensation for silicosis from Anglo American SA Ltd and AngloGold Ashanti Ltd.

The lawyers travelled all around the Eastern Cape looking for former mineworkers to join the case. Mpiti was one of 4,365 claimants who signed up to ask for justice against their former employers.

The case was called Qubeka v AngloGold Ashanti Limited, named after Biyana Benson Qubeka, a former mineworker from another Anglo mine: Vaal Reefs. He also had severe silicosis and his example was used as a “test case”.

The mine owners used all sorts of legal arguments to defend themselves. They said they never broke any law, they respected health and safety rules and they were not negligent. In March 2016, the mines agreed to stop the legal fight and settled the case ‘out of court’.

A trust fund was set up to pay compensation and Qubeka (who is still alive in 2023) was the inspiration for using the isiXhosa word “qhubeka” — forward — as the name for the trust. On April 22 2016, The Q (h) ubeka Trust was registered with the master of the High Court, Gauteng.

The settlement included only the 4,365 named claimants (including Mpiti and Qubeka). It did not apply to any others of the hundreds of thousands of mineworkers who were victims of occupational diseases. The Trust Deed also limited compensation to silicosis only — it did not provide for compensation for tuberculosis on its own.

Only claimants diagnosed with silicosis by the Trust’s medical assessment panel were eligible for compensation. And among those who had silicosis, claims could only be paid if claimants had two years of qualifying service on a specific list of mines.

Mpiti had worked on one of these mines for 10 years — the next question was whether he had silicosis. He was diagnosed by the Trust’s medical experts as suffering from the worst form of disease: “Category 4: Silicosis with SEVERE lung function loss.”

He signed all the Trust claim documents — with an ‘X’, because he could not write — renouncing any further claims against “Anglo American SA Limited and AngloGold Ashanti ... and all of their former or present direct or indirect holding companies, subsidiaries and/or associated companies and their former or present or future directors and/or officers and/or employees and/or shareholders anywhere in the world.” He was 67 years old and his weight had dropped to 43kg.

On March 27 2018, the Trustees paid the first part (tranche) of the Q (h) ubeka Trust compensation award for category C4 silicosis into Mpiti’s personal bank account. It was R162,805. Shortly afterwards, Mpiti passed away at his home. He was 68 years old.

In November 2022, Q (h) ubeka Trust paid the second and final tranche of the compensation award, R182,637, to the Mpiti family. By then AngloGold Ashanti had closed the TauTona mine and sold the last of its remaining mines in SA.

The Trust also submitted all the necessary documents to the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases to claim statutory compensation for silicosis. But according to the Compensation Commissioner for Occupational Diseases the claim had still not been paid, five years later, in January 2023.

About R105,000 remains due to the family in compensation from the government.

*Not his real name.

This is a shortened and slightly amended version of a chapter in the Q (h) ubeka Trust report.

The Trustees of the Q (h) ubeka Trust, who served from 2016 to 2023, were Sophia Kisting-Cairncross, chair; Goolam Aboobaker; John Doidge and Alicia Kistan. The Q (h) ubeka Trust had no connection to the Tshiamiso Trust, and to the class-action suit against various gold mining companies on behalf of gold miners who had developed silica related diseases.


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