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The forgotten workers

Once they were strong and healthy mineworkers, working in the belly of the earth. Today, many are in wheelchairs, the result of accidents on the mines. Overnight, life has become a struggle to survive with their disabilities and on their meagre compensation money. Last month, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) organised a conference in Johannesburg for disabled workers to discuss their problems…

While the Chamber of Mines celebrates its 100th birthday this year, thousands of mineworkers are remembering their comrades who died on the mines. More than 65 000 miners have died underground since gold was discovered in South Africa. This makes about 800 deaths every year. For these workers, there is nothing to celebrate.

The number of deaths on the mines is truly horrific. But just as terrible are the numbers of workers injured in accidents on the mines. Every year over 10 000 mineworkers are injured — at least 2 000 of them seriously. And of these, over 100 spend the rest of their days in wheelchairs. For these workers also, there is nothing much to celebrate.

What happens to these men after they are injured? How do they earn a living? How do they support their families? What are their problems? What hopes can they have for the future? Does anybody spare a thought for them after their accidents?

The National Union of Mineworkers (the NUM) does care. To try and solve the many difficulties that disabled workers face, the union organised a conference on 30 September this year at a hotel in Johannesburg. The gathering was called the Disabled and Paraplegic Mineworkers’ Conference. It was the first ever conference for disabled workers and its aim was for them to speak out about their problems.

The workers travelled to Johannesburg from all parts of the country. As they listened to the speakers or told their own stories, their faces showed the anger they felt deep inside. The anger that comes from being used and then thrown away when the bosses have no more use for them.

But for the NUM, the disabled workers are neither useless nor forgotten. The union sees all its workers as the same — they are all workers and they are all union members.

Comrade Sipho Mgijima, the national Health and Safety chairperson of the NUM, made this very clear. “Comrades!” he said in the opening address to the conference. “There’s no difference between you and the other comrades who are working now. And our union is very concerned about the problems you are facing. These problems have been created by the employers. They liked you when you were working for them, but now you are disabled they don’t care about you.”

“Some people are waiting for the employers to solve our problems. They won’t. But with unity among us, we can solve them. So, we will be very pleased to hear each and every thing that comrades want to say about their problems. Then we can analyse them and find solutions.”

The comrades didn’t need a second invitation to speak out. One after the other, they spoke about their problems. First on the agenda was the problem of compensation money.


“Since my accident I am getting less compensation money than I was getting when I was earning a wage,” said one comrade. “How am I supposed to support my family on this money?”

Another comrade pushed his fist into the air and shouted “Amandla” and the others answered with one voice, “Awethu!” “I would like to add to what the last speaker said. When you are in a wheelchair, expenses rocket. You can’t walk to work. You need special accommodation. You need more money. How can employers cut the wages of disabled workers? We should be getting more money because it is more expensive for us to live.”

Another comrade complained that he still hasn’t got his compensation money. “I asked the manager of my mine when I was going to get my compensation money and how much I would get. He refused to explain. He said the law doesn’t allow him to tell me. I told him to take me to the place where the compensation comes from so that I could speak to those responsible. He laughed at me.”

All the comrades agreed that one of the biggest problems facing disabled workers is money. When a worker is injured in an accident at work, a law called the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 says that the worker must be paid compensation money.

Before 1977, disabled workers got a lump sum only. When that money ran out — and with inflation it quickly did — there was no more to come. Since 1977, workers get a pension if the injury is very serious. The pension is always less than the wage the worker was getting before the injury, and it does not go up as much as the cost of living.

So each year, as prices go up, the disabled worker actually gets less and less money. And to make matters even worse, black workers get less compensation money than other workers because compensation is based on the wage a worker was earning before — and black workers usually earn lower wages than other workers.


Another big problem that disabled workers face is finding a job after their accident. Some disabled workers are given jobs on the mines where they worked before, but these are usually the worst jobs.

“After my injury I was given a job and told that I must do it,” said one worker with great bitterness. “I am not yet totally healed. My waist was broken in three places and it is not mended. I am frustrated so much by these injuries that I even wish I had died in that accident.”

“I don’t know about the other mines,” said another worker, “but at the mine where we are working, we are treated like slaves. We can be dismissed at any time. And we have not been given any special training since our injury.”

And another comrade had this to say: “I am working at Kloof gold mine where we are treated very badly. Whenever we have a complaint, management threatens us with dismissal. We once asked management for better toilet facilities and better housing. Their response — a threat of dismissal!”

Another comrade pointed out that disabled workers get less money for doing the same job as an able person. “You are doing the very same kind of work as another group but they tell you that you are still under medical attention — you are not part of that group, you are just ‘assisting’ that group.”

After all this, one comrade stood up and summed up what all the others were saying:

“Minebosses and the Chamber (of Mines) don’t want disabled workers at all. The managers don’t want to see the work that disabled people are doing on the mines. We are given hard work and still we get low wages. Do black workers not have the same needs as white workers?

“We live in poverty now and so do our families — and what happens when the time comes for us to leave the mine? We should unite and fight for our rights now, but also for the rights of those who are going to be injured after us— our children.”

All of these comrades are suffering, but at least they have a job. Workers from neighbouring countries and the homelands sometimes lose their jobs when they are “repatriated” — a fancy word the bosses use for dismissed.

One comrade told how he was dismissed shortly after being injured. “I was employed at Grootfontein mine. I was injured on duty and taken to hospital. Later, I asked to go home to see my family. When I came back, I was told that I’ve been retrenched. The doctor who was treating me told me that there was nothing I could do. I am still unemployed now.”


Cde Hazzy Sibanyoni, a NUM Health and Safety officer, led the next discussion session on the problems that disabled workers face at home and in the community. First the people from the rural areas spoke out. Their problems were the worst of all.

“In the rural areas, we live under chiefs who don’t care about the problems we are experiencing. Transport is a big problem. TEBA (The Employment Bureau of Africa) is supposed to transport us to and from the Reef. But they don’t do this. We have to fork out ourselves.”

“Another big problem is collecting water and firewood. Still another is collecting our money. When we leave the mine after our injury we are told that we can collect our money at the Labour Recruitment Centres. But when we go to the LRC at Butha-Buthe, we have to hire a car costing R30. That means more money. I could use that money for my children. I’m so angry I can’t carry on talking about it.”

“I have a similar problem,” said another worker. “To get to the clinic, I have to take a taxi. I have to pay for the taxi and the clinic. This is discrimination. If I was still working on the mine, I could be earning a wage and going the mine hospital for free. Right now I am being threatened with eviction because I can’t afford to pay rent.”

“Our wives have a really hard time. They are not trained to deal with disabled people. This places a very big burden on them. And then our women have to go out to find work because our compensation is not enough for us to live on. And what work can they find in the rural areas?”

But it is not only comrades in the rural areas who have problems. Comrades in the township face problems too.

One comrade spoke of how taxi drivers discriminate against disabled people. The drivers say it takes too much time to stop for a disabled person. “If there are three able people and one disabled person, the taxi driver will take the three and leave the disabled person saying it is a waste of time,” he said angrily. “And when you try to speak to community councillors to tell them that you can’t afford to pay rent and service charges, they won’t listen.”

Cde Hazzy summed up the problems that disabled workers face at home. “Our injury causes us suffering and our wives and families also suffer. Most of us are from the rural areas. We cannot move around in the rural areas in a wheelchair. The streets are not tarred. You can’t live in a shack in a wheelchair — the shack is too small. Another problem is that you always need someone to go with you wherever you go. Being unemployed and in the rural areas is far worse than being on the mines.”


At this stage, the conference broke for lunch. It gave us time to think about what the disabled comrades had told us. We could now understand why they were so angry. It is bad enough to be a black worker in South Africa. But to be a black disabled worker is even worse. You are three times oppressed — as a black, as a worker and as a disabled person.

After lunch the conference tried to find ways to fight this oppression. Cde May Hermanus, NUM Health and Safety co-ordinator, opened the discussion. She explained that the NUM has structures on three different levels — branch, regional and national. She said that the problems of disabled workers must be raised in these structures.

“We need to start at branch level. Have you been able to work in the branch committees at the mine? The branch committees can take these issues to management.”

Comrades explained that it was not easy for them to work in the branch committees. Firstly, management was telling disabled workers that they did not have the right to belong to the union. At some mines, management was even stopping workers’ stop-order subscription payments to the union without first asking the workers.

But not all the problems come from management. Workers who are not disabled also cause problems for disabled workers. They do not understand the difficulties that disabled workers face. They do not help them to get to the union meetings and they do not listen to the problems of disabled workers.

The conference recommended that all workers must be made aware of the problems disabled workers face. They must push these issues in the safety committees at branch level.

Safety stewards must help disabled comrades to get to union meetings and they must discuss their problems with them. Problems of compensation money, job grades, delays in getting money and training can all be addressed at branch level if all the comrades stand together with the disabled workers. Cde May said that NUM will put these problems in its newspaper to get discussion going throughout the whole union.


The union can also put the issue on the table at negotiations with the Chamber and De Beers. These negotiations take place each year.

“Many of the problems we have discussed here today can be made into demands for negotiations,” said Cde May. “We can demand that workers get the same wage they were getting before the accident. We can demand that mine management must pay all medical bills and for the things you need, like wheelchairs, transport, alterations to your houses, etc.

“We can demand that you get proper retraining so that you can do a proper job. We can demand that you get training to work from home if you don’t want to stay on the mines. We can demand that comrades who were injured before 1977 get the same compensation as those injured after 1977. And we can demand an end to the retrenchment of disabled workers,” Cde May said.

“But comrades, if we want our demands to be successful, we need the support of all the workers. If it comes to the push, all workers must be prepared to go on strike in support of our demands. We need to take up all the issues we have discussed today in union structures, but you will have to do the pushing from below.”

The union can also help disabled workers with the problems they face at home and in the community. Cde May explained that the NUM has a voice in the communities.

“The NUM has a voice in the townships through COSATU locals. In Transkei and Lesotho we have NUM districts. Maybe we can use the locals and the districts to discuss some of the issues which you raised here this morning, like the problem of taxis and the problem of rents.”

And for those disabled comrades who have already lost their jobs, the union is making plans to retrain them so that they can do work from home and live normal, independent lives.

The conference came to an end with shouts of ‘Amandla!’ and the singing of freedom songs. Disabled workers had spoken out loud and clear, and together with the union they had worked out a way forward.

But this is only the beginning of the disabled workers’ struggle. It is a struggle to force the bosses to give them the fair and just treatment they deserve. It is a struggle that can only be won with the support of each and every worker. Workers should all remember that they they are only an accident away from being in the same situation as these comrades are in today.

Unless workers make the struggle of the disabled their struggle, their future and the futures of their families and children can be as cruel and difficult as the lives of the disabled workers are today. Viva the disabled workers’ struggle! Viva NUM! Viva COSATU!

NEW WORDS disability — a physical injury that is permanent meagre — a meagre wage means very little money paraplegic — a person who has lost the use of their legs and cannot walk concerned — interested and worried Cde — the short way of writing the word comrade assist — help


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