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Death in the air

The Olifants River flows gently through the green valleys of the Strydpoort mountains. Thousands of people live in villages on the river banks in this out-of-the-way part of the country.

In the evening a soft breeze often blows through the valleys. It brings a feeling of peace to the people of the village. Not many parts of Lebowa are as beautiful as this.

Peace is a thing these people have always wanted. Their land, that some people call Sekhukhuneland, has seen too many wars – and too much death.

But death refuses to leave the valleys.

Today a deadly dust fills the air. This dust is in the drinking water, in the school playgrounds, all over the roads and in the bricks of people’s houses. Even the breeze carries the dust of death.

Worst of all it is in the lungs of many people. Maybe even thousands of people. And it is slowly eating their lungs away.

Where does this dangerous dust come from? It comes from old asbestos mines. The story begins back in 1907.


In that year a white shopkeeper called Ward found brown asbestos on the banks of the 0lifants River. He must have thanked the heavens that day. Asbestos is valuable stuff. It is used to make many things ­like heaters, cement, ceilings, pipes and brakes for cars to name a few. Ward called the place Penge and began to mine the asbestos.

A few years later another white man arrived at the village of Mmafefe. He came by car -one of those old models that travelled slowly over the bumpy, dirt roads.

The man’s name was Macleod. This was the first time many of the people saw a car. They gave the man beer and milk and allowed him to look around. And in the mountains around Mmafefe,

Macleod found another kind of asbestos – blue asbestos.

After this life – and death ­- changed for the people of the valleys. White men rushed into the mountains to mine asbestos and to get rich.

The white men employed men from the villages to dig into the sides of the mountains. They blew out the rock with dynamite. The men put the rock into big sacks. Then they carried the sacks down the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountains women and children broke the rock with hammers. They worked in a place called a mill. At the mill they sorted the asbestos from the rock.

And then the white men took the valuable asbestos away in trucks.

These mills made clouds of asbestos dust. And they made heaps of asbestos waste -heaps that are still in the valleys today.

The asbestos dust filled the air. And it filled the lungs of the workers and the people in the villages. There, in the people’s lungs it silently began to cause disease.


The mines got bigger and bigger. The 1940’s and 1950’s were very busy times for the mines in this area. Big overseas firms moved into the valleys. They too wanted to get rich from the asbestos in the mountains.

Firms like Cape Asbestos and Turner and Newall from England, United States Steel from America and ltaliani Prodotti Minerali from Italy all made money from the mines. Some of them still own land in the Strydpoort mountains.

Many of these firms knew the dust caused killer diseases.

But they didn’t care much. They let the dust fill the air. And their heaps of asbestos waste got bigger.

The mines also sent asbestos to factories in America, England and Italy. And in these far away lands other workers also died from the deadly dust.

At the end of the 1950’s most of the big firms closed down.

They took their money. And they left behind hundreds of asbestos waste dumps. They forgot about the men and women who dug their asbestos out of the mountains. They didn’t even tell the people about the dangers of asbestos.

Now many people are already dead from the dust. And today in every village you can see sick old people. They walk around coughing and bent over with disease.

These people are just waiting to die. Doctors cannot save them.

But what about all the other people who live in this part of Lebowa? More than 200,000 people live in villages like Mahlatjani, Mmafefe, Praktiseer and Kromellemboog. Everyday young children play on the dumps in these villages.

And Lebowa is like all homelands. The government forces people to live there. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the government forced many people to move into the Strydpoort area. And they plan to move even more people into these valleys of death.

In 20 or 30 years time many of these people will be dead – just because of the air they breathe.


The asbestos dust causes three deadly diseases:

ASBESTOSIS: Small pieces of asbestos get into the lungs. They cause small wounds and scars. Then the lungs stop working properly. People with asbestosis cannot breathe very easily. And most of them will die.

LUNG CANCER. Pieces of asbestos can also make a big cancer lump grow in the lungs. This cancer slowly eats the lungs until the person dies .

MESOTHELIOMA. This is also a cancer. It gets into the thin skin around the lungs. This cancer slowly strangles the lung. And it also slowly kills a person.

All three diseases take a long time to grow in people.

Sometimes they take 20, 30 or even 50 years to grow. But in the end they always kill. And doctors can do nothing to stop the diseases.

A person must breathe lots of dust to get asbestosis. But only one small piece of asbestos can cause lung cancer or mesotheliama. These are the more painful and more deadly diseases.

Doctors say that every hour of every day until the year 2000 someone will die from asbestos. And many of these dead people will come from the valleys of the Strydpoort mountains.


All over the world workers who work with asbestos and people who live with asbestos are fighting for their lives.

In America more than 20,000 workers are suing a big asbestos firm called The Mansville Corpora­tion. This firm got much of its asbestos from South Africa.

In a small island called Puerto Rico school teachers found out that the government was making cheap houses for workers out of asbestos cement. The school teachers knew the dangers of asbestos. The teachers came together and fought against the new houses. After two years they won. The government broke down all the houses.

Trade unions all over the world fight for the rights of asbestos workers. They say firms must stop using asbestos. They say firms can use many things instead of asbestos. The workers are slowly winning the struggle. In some countries the government has banned all asbestos factories.


Lebowa is not the only place with asbestos mines in southern Africa. Workers mine asbestos in the northern Cape, near Barberton in the eastern Transvaal, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Mocambique. And hundreds of factories use asbestos to make goods like brakes, water pipes, heaters, sheets for roofs and pots.

So thousands of people must live with asbestos – in the factories, in the mines, in their houses and in the air. In South Africa these trade unions and organisations are fighting the dangers of asbestos.


Three trade unions organise workers in asbestos mines. They also help workers fight dangers to their health. They are:

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) P.O. Box 10928 | Johannesburg 2000 Tel : (011) 29 -4561

Black Allied Mining and Construc­tion Workers Union (BAMCWU) 51 Commissioner Street Johannesburg 2001 Tel: (011) 834 -6681/2

South African Mine Workers Union (SAMWU)          Room 203 Chancellor House 25 Fox Street Johannesburg 2001 Tel: (011) 838-2377


These organisations can give advice to trade unions and organisations about the health dangers of asbestos. But they cannot help people who don’t belong to organisations.

Health Information Centre (HIC) P.O. Box 16173 Doornfontein 2028 Tel: (011) 339 -7411

Technical Advice Group (TAG) P.O. Box 32358 Braamfontein 2017 Tel: (011) 339 -1340

Industrial Health Research Group (IHRG) University of Cape Town Private Bag RONDEBOSCH 7700 Tel : (021) 698531

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