Ex-mineworkers vow to continue fighting despite COVID-19 outbreak

Ex-mineworkers marched to Parliament in August 2019, pleading with MPs to address the issue of unpaid benefits. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

Ex-mineworkers in South Africa and in the region say they will continue fighting for what is due to them amid the coronavirus outbreak

Ex-mineworkers and widows of those who worked on mines in South Africa say that the outbreak of the coronavirus and the lockdown has hampered their just demands and are worried that they might die without getting what is due to them. Under the banner of the Unpaid Benefits Campaigns and with the help of a coalition of community groups, advice offices, community activists and NGOs, ex-mineworkers and widows embarked on a journey to trace the rightful recipients of monies owed to them from pension and provident funds. Similar formations are mobilising in neighbouring countries from where the mines recruited much of its labour force, such as Botswana and Swaziland – and to where they repatriated untold numbers of sick and beleaguered men.

A recent report by Open Secrets on the pension fund industry revealed that there is over R42-billion owed to four million people and that industry players continue to benefit from withholding these benefits. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), elderly people are at a significantly increased risk of severe disease following infection from the novel coronavirus. The WHO also says that elderly people are more likely to develop severe symptoms and to die from covid-19, especially if they have other medical conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure.

“Some of us have pre-existing conditions like silicosis and diabetes so we are at high risk of contracting and dying from the virus. Also the fact that elderly people are made to stand in long queues to withdraw their old age grant is a worrying factor for us,” said William Casiwe, the Western Cape chairperson of the Unpaid Benefits Campaign of ex-mineworkers.

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William Casiwe says that he depends on his grandchildrens grant to make ends meet. Photo by Lilita Gcwabe

“The coronavirus has hampered our plans as a group and it is possible that we might die from the virus without getting our monies back. My wife and I depend on our grandchildren’s grant to make ends meet,” Casiwe said.

Meanwhile, Kitso Phiri from the Botswana Labour Migrants Association said that the lockdown in his home country and in South Africa has meant that Motswana ex-mineworkers cannot pursue claims that are held by a number of institutions based in South Africa. Phiri also said that they cannot travel to the only occupational health service centre in Molepolole, a village west of the capital city, Gaborone.

“Due to the travel restrictions, many ex-mineworkers who travel from all corners of our country to Molepolole to access specialised care services that are akin to what they were receiving when they were working in the mines for occupational diseases, they are now unable to do that. Our fear is that many are going to default on their treatment and if they contract covid-19 then they will die,” Phiri said.

Nobantu Malomboza, whose husband died in 2012 due to silicosis, said that the lockdown has affected them heavily as they go hungry and cannot ask neighbours for food as everyone is also affected. “I’m part of a group of ex-mineworkers and we have in the past marched to Parliament to get answers but to no avail,” said Malomboza.

Nobantu Malomboza says her husband died from silicosis in 2012. Photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Another widow, Nowan Dlilanga, said that they have engaged all the relevant stakeholders from government to private investment companies but no one has given them a satisfactory answer on the whereabouts of the money owed to the mineworkers. “We will not stop looking for our money and the mine bosses and companies must not forget that they are rich because of cheap labour from our husbands,” said Dlilanga.

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Nowam Dlilanga says they have tried to engage relevant stakeholders to get to the bottom of where the money is but to no avail. Photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Researcher and activist, Dale McKinley said that the government, trade unions and investment companies have to do better by making sure that isolation does not become an issue, for instance by including the ex-mineworkers in the networks and systems that make sure they have access to information. McKinley also said it is important for the ex-mineworker groups to connect with other groups in the community that are making demands for access to water, sanitation and food. “The ex-mineworkers have to organise themselves so that the barriers to their money will be approached in a collective voice. They also need to connect with burgeoning organisations and activists who are making legitimate demands on the state for provision of food, personal protective equipment and so on,” McKinley said.

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