This is a lightly edited excerpt from Lucas Ledwaba and photojournalist Leon Sadiki’s Broke and Broken: The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa (BlackBird/Jacana, 2016).
Zwelendaba Mgidi was 23 years old when he left his home village of Kwa-Bala in the beautiful valleys of Mpondoland, Eastern Cape, to start work on the gold mines of the Free State province in 1983. From as far back as the late 1800s, Mpondoland became a reservoir for cheap labour in the industrialised areas like the Witwatersrand. The gold mining industry recruited thousands of young African men, particularly from the poor rural areas of Lesotho, Eastern Cape, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi and Botswana to use as cheap labour on the mines in the goldfields of Free State and the Witwatersrand.
Many of the men worked as night soil collectors in the early days of the development of black townships such as Soweto and Alexandra, which served as labour reserves for the developing City of Gold. Thousands of others were recruited to work on the growing sugar cane plantations in Natal, now called KwaZulu-Natal. But it was the gold mines that provided a passage out of the gnawing poverty of the rural villages. Even though job prospects on the mines have dropped due to changing political and economic trends, the road to the mines still remains an escape for many in Mpondoland and other rural areas of the Eastern Cape.
Mgidi was healthy, fit, energetic and dreamt of one day returning to Kwa-Bala in his own car to retire in peace. But his return home in 2011 was not the one he had imagined at all in the 28 years he had spent working underground. Instead, he was a pathetic shell of the man he once was. He was a wreck. A damaged human being with rotting lungs. The price he paid for digging for gold, the precious metal that made others, except those who dug it, filthy rich. In 2008, aged 48, he received the worst news of his life. The Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases (MBOD) diagnosed him with silicosis, “an irreversible, progressive, incurable and at a later stage disabling and potentially fatal disease”.
“I spent most of my life on the mines,” says Mgidi, aged 55 years old in 2015. Once he was a very fit man, a boxer and road runner. But the years he spent working underground at the Lorraine and Harmony gold mines in the Free State have left him a wreck. Between 1983 and 1988, Mgidi worked as a timber boy [sic] at Lorraine Gold Mine where his duty was to erect timber poles in the tunnels to prevent the walls from collapsing during blasting. From 1999 to 2004, he was employed as a winch driver at President Steyn Mine where he pulled the scraper to move the rock from the stope face into the tipper and from 2004 to 2011, he worked as team leader and was responsible for blasting of rocks underground at Bambanani Mine. All these mines are in Welkom in the Free State.
But those are just memories now, covered in the deadly haze of dust containing invisible silica particles. On a warm but windy Saturday afternoon when most men from the village are tending to their fields and livestock or attending to important matters of the area, he sits in the winter’s sun, deep in thought. Even as we sit speaking in his lounge, he pauses often to draw breath. He pants heavily from doing small things like walking to his bedroom to fetch pictures of him in his prime, wearing boxing gloves, shorts and a gown, ready for a bout at one of the mining competitions in the 1980s.
His lungs are failing him. Silicosis is slowly eating away at him. He’s a broken man with no hope. Everything is difficult; breathing, walking, taking a bath and even laughing and speaking come with great difficulty. In years past, he would spend his leave days tilling the land and visiting friends in the village. But now he is a prisoner, a prisoner of silicosis, a man held hostage by his own body.
Mgidi has a spectacular view of the majestic, curvy hills that stretch as far as the eye can see to the north and west of his homestead in Kwa-Bala village near Flagstaff. Beautifully painted rondavels cling to the hilltops as if carefully placed there to add colour to the green, grass-matted hills. Mgidi spends most of his days basking in the sun in his homestead here, not far from where the R61 cuts through the village towards Port St Johns in the south and other Mpondoland towns and villages to the north. This is a view that could warm anyone’s heart, especially on a clear day.
“My health,” responds Mgidi when I ask what it is in his view would be just compensation for the damage done to him. “If I can get my health back. That’s what would make me happiest, getting my health back.” Mgidi lives with this dreaded disease. If the mining houses had not put profit before the health of hundreds of thousands of men like him, perhaps he would still be fit, healthy and working to support his family. But he is not. At times he has been so struck down by illness that his wife, Noziqhamo, and their five children feared the worst. Even when we met in May 2015, he was frail, trembled in the warm winter sun and his face was drawn and pale, his eyes wide, looking exhausted. As a young man he was full of dreams. One of his dreams was to earn enough to buy himself a car. But such was the low pay on the mines that he has never owned one. Instead, he sits in the sun watching the traffic fly past, wishing he could get behind the wheel to get himself to the clinic and to the community hall to collect his state disability pension. “This is a very bad sickness. I can’t even walk to the gate.
“When I go to get my pension, I have to walk a long distance. Even taking a bath is very difficult. Everything is difficult. I can’t do anything, only my wife and children do the work. I can’t even work in the garden.”
Mgidi’s homestead points to a man who dedicated his earnings to improving his family’s living conditions. The old mud hut where he grew up still stands next to the other much older crumbling one used for cooking. Then, a three-roomed brick house for his older sons stands close to another bigger house, a three-bedroom house where he stays with Noziqhamo and the younger children. The graves of his parents lie next to each other in a mealie patch in front of the houses, and behind the houses stands another bigger piece of land where Noziqhamo and the children cultivate vegetables. His faint voice trembles, a distant, sad look in his eyes as he reflects on his life now, a far cry from when he aspired to emulate the exploits of his hero, South African boxing champion Brian Mitchell, in the ring. “I can’t go anywhere. I only stay here in my yard,” says Mgidi, pausing to gather his thoughts, tears in his eyes.
Noziqhamo looks away, the sight of her emotional husband too much to bear. She has seen worse, no doubt – those days when Mgidi would be so sick he would be unable to speak or move. Even she can’t go anywhere now, unless she finds someone to look after her husband, usually her children. He has become the centre of her life. “He told me his lungs were giving him problems and he couldn’t work. I was worried. For three years he was very, very sick,” Noziqhamo says about Mgidi’s life after he was retrenched from work in 2011. “My former employer (Harmony Gold) found that I was permanently unfit for employment and I was retrenched,” he states in a sworn affidavit signed in December 2012. On 23 June 2011, aged only 51 years old, he was given a Medical Incapacitation Form which showed he had silicosis and was permanently unfit for employment. He had to vacate his long-time place of residence, Room F6 at Bambanani Hostel in Welkom, and face an uncertain future. He was no longer a stope team leader. He was no longer a mineworker. There was now only one thing to do; return home to Kwa-Bala, in a bus and not in the car he hoped he would get to buy one day.
Even as he returned home, it was clear he was no longer the man he was before illness began eating away at his lungs. Back home, he got violently ill, leaving Noziqhamo and the children shaken. There was no way the couple could hide Mgidi’s illness from their children, whom he says he loves dearly and enjoys spending time with. “The children know that their father is sick because they nurse him when he is sick. He was a hard worker. He never got tired,” says Noziqhamo. Mgidi himself recalls the days when he was still in good health, his hard labour making millions for the randlords. “I was a hard worker, even at work I was the trusted one,” says Mgidi, a tired, proud smile cracking across his weary, pale face. He looks back on those years of innocence, when he did not know that each time he descended underground for another shift he was literally offering himself to contracting the killer disease that is now slowly disabling him. On weekends when he was not going down the gold mines, Mgidi spent his time engaging in his favourite sport, boxing. In fact, he was even a boxing trainer whose skills and knowledge endeared him to his colleagues who nicknamed him “Fix”. At the time, mining houses invested heavily in sport and even had the honour of producing many road and track runners who became household names in South African sporting circles, like Vincent Rakabaele, Peter Ngobeni, Matthews Temane and many others. But Mgidi’s passion was in the boxing ring. “I loved to run as well, doing roadwork,” he says. Then he looks at his scrawny, somewhat skeletal body. “This makes me feel so bad now,” he says pausing to compose himself. “Very bad!” he says.
“Because I was a very active person, but [life] is hard now,” he says. A lake of tears forms in his eyes. But he doesn’t cry. Men, they say in these parts, cry only deep inside their being. “I only leave the yard when I go to the pension pay point. Even then, there must be someone to look after me,” he says.