Ex WENELA Miner Recounts Horrific Health Conditions

  • Talks TB exposure
  • Squalid living arrangements
  • Inhuman treatment & racism

IN the mid-70s, at the height of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, South Africa opened up job opportunities in its mining fields with the aim of luring the young and youthful men mainly from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and others to work in the mines.

By Michael Gwarisa

Some say the call by South Africa to have young men work in their mine fields was a botched effort meant to distract young people from joining the liberation struggles in their respective countries. Most young  men however could not resist the offer and trooped in their hundreds into South Africa’s Wenela gold fields.

Wenela is an acronym for Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, comprising mine workers mainly from countries within the Southern African region.

Single then and with not much responsibilities, Mr Lungile Mkwananzi (63) from Bulawayo took his first leap of faith in 1976 at the age 20 joining the bandwagon of other job and adventure seeking young men from the region to go sweat it out in Wenela.

Even though the employers provided protective clothing to miners as well as better wages, the living conditions and health services of the time have left an indelible damage to the health of most Ex Wenela workers amidst indications that to date, most are still being diagnosed of Tuberculosis (TB) among other respiratory and lung diseases.

In an exclusive interview with HealthTimes, Mr Mkwananzi said there was need for the South African mining companies to compensate Ex Wenela miners heavily especially for the damage the mining activities had on the health of most workers.

I would say back then, we were so much exposed, we were exposed so much to the extent that in as much as we were being given protective clothing, the clothing was not enough to protect us from the harsh underground environment.

“A lot of factors came into play back then, racism was rife and as long as you were a black African, it was difficult to get any office job regardless of your education level. We were confined to the pick and shovel work,” said Mr Mkwananzi.

Even though he started off as personal assistant whose duties  was to mainly carry the foreman’s food bag and personal belongings, he would later be demoted following a dispute with his boss. His new duties included loading the carts which he says was the most dangerous part of mining and exposed black miners to numerous lung infections owing to the high dust volumes.

The living conditions were filthy, and like sardines, they would be packed in their thirties in poorly ventilated single quarter compound rooms.

“We were staying in a compound where women were not allowed to come or even visit. We were people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Tanzania.

“We had bunk beds, and would be staying in a single room, at times we would be 30 or even above in one room. Now if one fell sickk or contracted TB or any infectious diseases, majority of people would also fall sick. The ventilation was poor for the rooms and the only part of the room where you wouldn’t find beds was the door area otherwise we were packed.”

He adds that there were no periodic medical examinations at the mines, the only examinations would happen upon arrival which means even when miners developed any ailments along the way, nothing much would be done.

“Quite a number of people contracted TB during my period at the mines and to be honest with you, only that I am not a medical person, I was once admitted at the Leslie Williams Memorial Hospital, I was coughing up blood but up to now I don’t know what it is, the doctors just wrote something but it was not TB.

“Even in September last year, the doctors still came across that very same problem I was diagnosed with more than 40 years ago. Because of the dust and the way it is hot underground, and considering that you will BE kneeling at an inclined angle, the dust would come directly at you. We were working under very squalid and conditions. At times we would be working inside some small holes and we would inhale the dust because there was not much room. We would go under these narrow small holes with shovels.”

At times,  hosepipes would be used to would blow huge clouds of dust underground and without proper ventilation.

He added that most miners because of the love of a new job opportunity would deliberately turn a blind eye to the inhuman acts which they were exposed to even upon arrival at the health inspection centre in Mzilikazi.

“When we were leaving Rhodesia to South Africa, when we got to Mzlikazi where the Employment Bureau of Southern Africa was, we would go for further examinations. Now to see how our rights were being violated, we would first go for an eye inspection, now the eye inspector would make us strip naked down to the underwear

“When the eye inspection was done, you would carry your clothes without putting them on waiting for say an ear inspection and all other tests. I say that was wrong, why should one strip for an eye inspection.”

According to the mining policies then, foreign miners were only allowed to work for two years in South Africa and they would be discharged on different times since  the passport was only valid for only two years. One would not work for more than two years.

“So after a year, you would go for a break, then come back for the last leg but you could not go beyond two years.”

By early December 1976, Mr Mkwananzi returned to Zimbabwe for his break and went back to South Africa in April of 1978 where he worked at West Driefontein mine as a Winch driver which involved a lot of earth moving and scooping.

He says some have already died from TB and lung diseases and efforts should be scaled up to track each and every miner who was part of the Wenela mining activities. Mr Mkwananzi is also president for the Ex-Wenela Miners Association of Zimbabwe, an organisation currently pushing for the compensation of ex miners.

“Studies have shown that many people who have been dying of TB  and occupational diseases were coming from the mines. It was also discovered that the majority of them are Ex Wenela miners.

“The training and research support centre with support of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), conducted an exercise where 500 people were asked to come for the medical examinations at the Mpilo health services centre. They took 400 from Ex Wenela, 50 from Shabanie and 50 from Shangani. From that list, we had 68 Ex Wenela workers who found to be having respiratory infections among other ailments.”

The Ex Wenela miners association now has representation across the country and is working on documenting ex-employees to ensure they get screened and treated for TB should the need arise.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe has launched the TB in the Mining Sector program (TIMS) a program meant to scale up case finding and treatment of Tuberculosis among mine workers, ex mine workers, their families and communities.

According to the World Bank (WB), TB was very high amongst mine workers owing to a plethora of factors which include but not limited to prolonged exposure to silica dust, poor living conditions, high HIV prevalence, poverty, circular movement of mineworkers across provincial and national borders, and a poor cross-border health referral system.


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