By Thom Pierce
I stared at the legal document. It looked almost identical to the first time I saw it four years ago, except for paragraph 7 which was longer this time, expanded by a jumble of names that were all too familiar to me. I was surprised by the intensity of sadness that I felt as I read the names and looked through the portraits that I had taken back in 2015. A sense of failure overwhelmed me as I added the photographs of 10 miners to the folder on my computer labelled “passed”.
In the legal documents, paragraph 7 contains a list of miners who have died since the silicosis class action was brought against 32 gold mining companies in South Africa. The legal documents lists the 56 applicants who represent thousands of gold miners who have contracted the devastating lung disease from working underground, in poor conditions, under the watchful and knowing eye of a system that prioritised profit over human dignity.
But first a step back on how I came to know some of the miners. In 2015, SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign commissioned me to do what I at first thought was impossible – use my camera to document all 56 of the applicants named as the representatives of the thousands of miners in the historic class action.
SECTION27 was the legal representative of the Treatment Action Campaign and Sonke Gender Justice who had been admitted as amicus in the case to show the impact at community and household level. There was a feeling that these applicants could merely become numbers and that it was important to show the world who they are and where they live, to make those numbers human.
Over 20 days I journeyed through the back roads of South Africa’s Eastern Cape and Free State via the mountains of Lesotho to meet the men and women who were either miners or left behind after the migrant workers contracted silicosis and/or tuberculosis on the gold mines.
On the day the class action kicked off in the Johannesburg High Court, we unveiled the “Price of Gold” exhibition in an underground cellar below the Methodist Church adjacent to the court buildings. The full installation, parts of which have been to Cape Town and the rest of the world, involves the recreation of an underground setting with visitors having to wear hard hats in a dark room, where the images are only visible with the aid of head lights. A soundtrack of the laboured breathing of a miner with silicosis is also played during the exhibition.
Back to the now and Paragraph 7. SECTION27 and their publication Spotlight, were planning another exhibition of the “Price of Gold” portraits as part of the human rights festival at Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg at the end of March. As I prepared the portraits for printing I requested from one of the legal firms an update on the miners that I had photographed.
Paragraph 7 in the legal documents includes the following: “The following class representatives have since passed away and are therefore not cited as representatives of the settlement classes: Mr Zwelendaba Mgidi, Mr Zaneyeza Ntloni, Mr Tekeza Joseph Mdukisa, Mr Tohlang Paolosi Mako, Mr Myekelwa Mkenyane, Mr Patrick Sitwayi, Mr Vuyani Dwadube, Mr Matela Hlabathe, Mr Siqhamo Richard Hoyi and Mr Buzile Nyakaza.”
To be honest, when I requested an update I expected there to be one or two miners who may have passed on by now, if any.
Out of 56 miners, or their families, that I photographed for the project, 10 names had been added to the list of deceased. As I clicked through the photographs I could clearly remember the experience of being with each person, turning up at their homes with only a couple of words of their mother tongue, mostly relying on an interpreter to help me explain what this project entailed. A white man asking to photograph them, to make public the injustice that has been done to them, mostly by other white men. I had to explain to each person that what I was doing would not bring them compensation but that it might help to raise awareness of the injustice, to make the story more public and more accessible. To help more people understand that these are not just names; but people with homes, families and communities.
I was welcomed into every home, without exception, my reasoning accepted; and generously given the time and information that I needed to tell their story.
As the project unfolded I started to see that the injustice was not solely realised in the violent indignity of a labour force, so dehumanised that their health and safety was of no concern to anyone, often not even to themselves; but that it started by being born into a world, a country and an inhumane system that was specifically designed for them to fail. A world where they were denied a proper education, stripped of their humanity and forced to seek unskilled, underpaid work in, what we have known for many years to be, deadly conditions. Then, when they became sick because of this work, they were dismissed and discarded, with little or no compensation, back into a world within which they did not have the means to prosper. Sent back to their rural homes, sick and poor, with no transferrable skills and no support.
I have been around the world to talk about The Price of Gold, to sit on panels and discuss the efficacy of a project that was acknowledged as being instrumental in raising public awareness of this injustice. I have won awards for this project and it has been published and exhibited globally. The court case is ground breaking as a class action, not only because it is the country’s first real class action, but also because of the scale of it.
But we have failed the miners AND their families by allowing this to drag on for as long as it has. Yes, there has been a settlement agreement, but for those on the ground the reality is that there has been no compensation paid, the surviving men and their families still live in the same conditions, still struggle to breathe, struggle to work and struggle just to get by. As they die so does the need for them to be compensated and, perhaps the greatest injustice of all is that their families are left without them, and without the right to compensation. These ten men have died, but they represent thousands more that were not named in the court documents and photographed for the project, thousands who may die before compensation is distributed.
With every miner that dies, we fail them again. As I look at these photographs I remember the resignation in their eyes and the shame in some of their voices. The shame of not being able to support their families anymore, relying on their wives, partners or children to look after them and earn money, in whatever way possible, to put food on the table. As I look at these photographs I remember the families, the children and grandchildren who are left behind; without the right to compensation. As I look at these photographs I think of the miners and I ask myself if those with the power to compensate could speed things up, or if they are happy to drag things out as death will absolve them of responsibility
- A website has been set up containing all the details of the settlement as well as a guide on how to lodge a claim https://www.silicosissettlement.co.za/
- Thom Pierce is an award winning photographer based in South Africa. His work focuses on issues of human rights and social justice, through a combination of art, documentary and portrait photography. For more information visit thompierce.com.