Silicosis: The curse of Lesotho’s miners

Al Jazeera reports on the decades-long injustices against gold mine workers from Lesotho, working in South African mines, that have gotten ill as a result of their exposure to silica dust. There are currently as many as 2,000,000 former gold miners suffering from silicosis, according to the South African Department of Labour.

As with other mining industries in the country, South Africa’s gold industry was founded on the migrant labour system that was solidified through the racist system of apartheid. Black men from various parts of Southern Africa were often cheaper to employ than locals, a factor that still stands to this day. More than half of the total workforce in the mining sector is recruited from neighbouring countries. Because of this, many often “disappear from the radar of the occupational health institutions and the mining houses” once they retire or leave the mines to return home. This has meant that those who become gravely ill, as in the case of the gold miners who’ve contracted silicosis, they are unable to claim health insurance benefits if at all they are covered.

During apartheid, black mine workers were not covered despite making up up to 90 percent of mine workers in the country. Despite reformations made to the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (ODMWA) after 1994, which for a long time “only served the white and coloured workers”, the implementation of these amendments have not been efficiently and adequately carried out.

Above are images of mine workers from Lesotho who have been affected by the silicosis outbreak in Southern Africa, photographed by Felix Karlsson:

  • Maphatsoe Kompi is a former miner who contracted silicosis during nearly 40 years working deep underground in South Africa’s gold mines.
  • Lebina Liphapang worked without adequate breathing protection in South Africa’s mines for 29 years, and left when he realised the work was making him severely ill.
  • Liphapang has found himself unable to work. Suffering from silicosis due to the tiny particulates he inhaled while working in the mines, he can rarely afford medication and faces a bleak future.
  • Silitosis sufferer Litabe Litabe spent 30 years  toiling in South Africa’s gold mines, where he describes conditions as “harsh”. He says the ventilation systems didn’t reach all underground areas and often failed.

My people…