In the 1970s and 1980s, Malawi was a significant source of labour for South Africa’s mines but between 1988 and 1992 13,000 Malawian migrant mine workers were repatriated. The official reason was that 200 had been tested HIV positive and the Malawian government refused to begin screening prospective mine workers before they moved to South Africa.
Wiseman Chirwa, in his paper “Aliens and Aids in Southern Africa: The Malawi-South Africa Debate” (gated version available from the Oxford Journal African Affairs), argues that the crisis facing the South African mining industry required the retrenchment of largely foreign migrant workers, with a shift to recruit from the local labour force although the South African Chamber of Mines framed the repatriation of miners as an issue of public health.
This sets to the scene for the recent demands made by Malawi’s Ex-Miners’ Committee. Reports suggest that at the beginning of 2013, the chairperson of this committee, John Dick, requested to meet with Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi, as Malawian miners who worked in South Africa between 1988 and 1989 have not received their pension and other benefits from Malawi’s Ministry of Labour. Dick explained that 10,000 miners from Malawi, who were recruited under The Employment Bureau of Africa that was established in different southern African countries, are still waiting for their pensions. They are not happy as Dick described on air Zodiak Broadcasting Station Radio,
We aren’t happy that the Malawi government is still mum on the stand of our pension and other benefits though it received millions of Kwacha from [South African] mining companies to pay us.
Bakili Muluzi, Malawi’s former president, allegedly promised ex-miners ZAR 5000 (approx. USD 500 or MWK 200,000) compensation in 1997. Malawi’s ex-miners are still waiting.
The outcome of a class-action motion in South African may also affect Malawian ex-miners. At the end of 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that
Richard Spoor, a human rights lawyer in South Africa, filed an application for class certification of an action for damages in Johannesburg’s South Gauteng High Court “on behalf of tens of thousands of current and former gold mine workers, as well as dependents of deceased workers, who contracted silicosis” as a result of their work in gold mines, according to an e-mail today from Spoor’s office.
An estimated 350,000 to 500,000 former mine workers may suffer from occupational lung diseases in southern Africa, in countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi and Swaziland, Cape Town-based lawfirm Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys said in August, without giving a source of the estimates.
Malawians continue to travel to South Africa to work in the mining sector. The Post (a South African publication) reported that last week at Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine near Carletonville, west of Johannesburg, South Africa, miners who had travelled from Malawi, as well as Lesotho and Mozambique, were barred from entering their workplace and hostels.
Harmony said the men were not expected to return to its hostels after a decision was taken to close the Kusasalethu operation “until further notice” following violent strikes last year.
The decision had been taken around December 21, immediately following the staging of an underground sit-in by more than 1 000 employees, apparently in solidarity with those who had been suspended for taking part in an illegal strike.
Mine spokeswoman Marian van der Walt said Harmony had decided to delay its post-festive-season reopening at Kusasalethu to allow a review of the financial and operational status following violent strikes in December.
However, one member of the Workers’ Committee, Lennox Tshisa, disagreed with Van der Walt,
Who will use his last money to travel from Malawi or Mozambique when they’ve been told not to report for duty and ensured that their salaries will still be paid?
It is clear that workers were not informed of this until they arrived at the mine and realised they were homeless.
And workers have continued to arrive according to a miner, Samson Mbele,
We have already spent a night out in the rain and have not been given access to our rooms to at least get our blankets and other belongings.
Most of us used our last money on travelling, and today we woke up in the bare open; tired, hungry and dirty with no showers to turn to.
No one would have reported for duty if we had heard that we’re not expected. This seems to us like a ploy to dismiss us.
Van der Walt also said that 5000 miners were still receiving their salaries although operations had been suspended. She expected miners to return home on finding the hostels closed. This is unrealistic and unjust for the Malawian migrants workers who are now waiting, many miles from home, at the gates of Kusasalethu for operations to continue. Whether or not the operations will continue is another story.