Working the night shift at the Truda Foods snack manufacturing factory in Komani, Eastern Cape, it was Eugene Jali’s job to run one of two maize mixers. The 28-year-old Jali, who had been a permanent worker at Truda Foods for a year when the accident happened on 13 January, was alerted by a casual worker that the other maize mixer was malfunctioning and water and maize were collecting underneath it.
The South African Security and Allied Workers Union (Saswu), which represents workers at the factory, says Truda Foods has a poor health and safety practice according to which permanent employees must assist casual workers if the former see something going wrong with machines being operated by the latter.
So when Jali was asked for help, he started trying to drain the water. But tragedy struck when the casual worker mistakenly pushed the start button on the machine, which allegedly trapped Jali’s hand. “He couldn’t get his hand out,” said a fellow worker, speaking on behalf of Jali. “By the time he freed his arm, his hand had already been cut off.”
Jali was discharged from the intensive care unit at Life Queenstown Private Hospital after a week. From his rented room in Ezibeleni township, he said he was in too much pain and feeling too “destroyed” to be interviewed. He gave permission to his colleague and the leaders of the Independent Komani Residents Association (Ikora) to tell his story.
Jali’s colleague, whose name is being withheld as he fears retaliation from Truda Foods management, said: “Eugene told me he started screaming when his hand was chopped off. He ran around looking for a first aid kit. He told me other workers were also running around. The ladies were crying and his blood was flowing everywhere.
“There was nobody to take him to hospital. His colleague then tried to stop the blood flow with a cloth. He felt very hot and the other workers took him outside into the cool air. They waited for the guy who drives the forklift to take him to hospital. He told me that he felt close to death.”
The colleague says Jali’s hand was left behind in the factory on a black bin bag and did not accompany him to the hospital. A photograph of Jali’s severed hand was supplied to New Frame, but it is too graphic and disturbing to publish. It shows his severed hand with pieces of exposed flesh and deep slashes to three of his fingers.
“The next day, Louis van Deventer, the human resources manager, came with Eugene’s hand to the public hospital and took Eugene and his hand to the Life [Healthcare] private hospital,” Jali’s colleague said. “But Eugene says he never saw his hand since that day. Nobody told him what happened to his hand. After that, not even one person from Truda Foods management visited him in hospital.”
Jali was discharged after several days. “He said the hospital did not give him painkillers to take home. He wanted to buy some but found he had been short paid. So he went to the Truda factory to inquire why he had not been paid for all his hours worked and said he needed money for painkillers. But they sent him home without the money. A friend bought painkillers for him,” his colleague claimed.
Xolile Mashukuca, general secretary of Saswu, says the workers who witnessed the terrible accident are still traumatised. “They saw the machine mauling Eugene. They say he was helpless [to free himself] and there was nobody who could free him until the machine finished. We understand the workers were told to carry on working for that shift and that Truda management did not care about their trauma. There was no counselling that we are aware of. They are still traumatised today,” said Mashukuca.
When asked why nobody had thought to pack Jali’s hand in ice and send it to the hospital, Jali’s colleague said: “They were all in shock. It is normal at Truda that nobody knows first aid. Nobody knew what to do. The supervisors aren’t even trained in health and safety. They are afraid of the top management.”
Detailed questions about the accident that were sent to Truda Foods’ owner, Colin van Heerden, and the factory’s executive management went unanswered. These included whether Jali’s hand had been taken to hospital, if the shift had continued after the accident, which job Jali would be offered now that he has only one hand, and whether it was true that there had been a delay in taking him to hospital.
According to articles in some newspapers, Truda Foods management said that Jali had been extremely careless and negligent and had broken safety rules.
Life Queenstown hospital was asked to confirm that Van Deventer brought in Jali’s hand only the next day and that the patient had been discharged without proper pain medication. Bruce Janssens, regional manager of Life Healthcare, said the hospital could not disclose patients’ information without their consent.
An unlikely option
Once Jali recovers from the pain of the amputation, he may face a long wait for compensation from the Compensation Fund. In theory, he could get a bionic hand that would restore his ability to work, but it is only available in the private health sector in Gauteng and has not been mooted as an option that is open to Jali.
Instead, Jali left for KwaZulu-Natal using public transport on 19 January to stay with his mother, a retired worker from the same factory. “He is in so much pain and all he can think about is that he needs mama to take care of him until his stump heals,” said Jali’s colleague. Ikora’s communications head, Zolile Rodger Xalisa, confirmed that Jali had left Komani “in great pain”.
Prosthetist Jaco Deist, who has 25 years’ experience building and fitting prostheses, said “losing a hand is a terrible amputation. Previous setups only gave the amputee 20% hand function back. With bionic hands there is a lot more function possible, [with] different grips and easy control via electrodes and small muscle contractions inside the prosthesis.
“Very importantly, after supplying the amputee with such a prosthesis, he will need weeks of training. The cost is extremely high. I can’t foresee that it will be less than R900 000. His amputation will have to be treated to start shaping his residual limb and to control swelling,” said Deist.
Health and safety concerns
According to Xalisa, “the lives of workers at Truda are compromised to the core”. He added: “Ikora is going to open a criminal case of attempted murder. Someone in the company from senior management must take full responsibility.”
Specialist occupational health and safety attorney Johan Lorenzen of Richard Spoor Inc Attorneys said although he could not comment on the specifics of Jali’s case, “the fact that the Department of Labour ignored workers’ requests for action is sadly par for the course. Across the country, workers’ pleas for interventions to address unsafe working conditions routinely go unanswered as the state continues to under resource inspectors.”
Thobile Lamati, director general of the Department of Employment and Labour, says the case will be investigated. “I have been informed about this accident. I have instructed my office [and] the provincial head of department in the Eastern Cape to ensure that all these cases are investigated by our occupational health and safety inspectors,” he said.
However, Mashukuca says Saswu had previously asked the department to investigate Truda Foods. It cleared the company of any health and safety breaches in July 2020 but refused to give the union the final report. He added that the department’s inspectors “clear companies when they shouldn’t”.
“Who then should the workers trust in these circumstances? The company doesn’t have health and safety representatives, there are no safety committees or meetings of these committees and we know claims with the compensation commission are not made because Truda wants to conceal injuries,” said Mashukuca.
New Frame reported last year that Saswu and Ikora had submitted a list of health and safety hazards and alleged breaches of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act to Truda Foods management. After the management refused to discuss these concerns, workers began a protest outside the factory gates. It ended when Truda Foods was granted an interim interdict against Saswu, Ikora and 86 workers.
Truda Foods later asked the labour court in Port Elizabeth to jail the union’s shop stewards at the factory, Saswu’s Mashukuca and the Ikora leadership for contempt of court, claiming that they had defied the interim interdict by continuing to organise protests. But in December, the court brokered an agreement between the parties according to which Truda Foods management must meet with Saswu and Ikora to negotiate the disputed issues before 7 February. Saswu says it is still waiting for Truda Foods to agree to a date for this meeting.