So. Africa: Documentary exposes the dark history of South African gold mines
Author: Rebecca Davis, Daily Maverick (South Africa), Published on: 8 July 2019
‘Dying for Gold: New documentary lays bare the stark debt SA owes its miners’ 4 July 2019
“Genocide”. That is the word that Namibia-born filmmaker Richard Pakleppa uses to describe the system which saw generations of black men sent down South African mines to work in conditions that mine bosses and medical experts knew from early on would cause many of them to contract debilitating lung disease. There are other analogies that Pakleppa uses in grappling with the South African mining industry. One is slavery; another is the cold, bureaucratic horror of Nazism. Pakleppa, together with Catherine Meyburgh, is the co-director of the new documentary Dying for Gold, a powerful and haunting chronicle of South African mining seen from the particular prism of its health impact on the men who have toiled underground.
The filmmakers spent many months researching in state archives to find film footage and documents which make plain how well aware the mining establishment was that the work undertaken by miners was potentially life-threatening. Early in the documentary, the viewer is shown footage from a 1921 movie whose title says it all: “Dust Kills”. The dangers of silica dust, explains a voice-over, have been known “since the early days of deep-level gold mining”… While mine bosses and doctors employed by the mines knew all about silicosis, the lung disease contracted from extended exposure to silica dust, the same level of information was never extended to the miners.
Following a massive class-action suit brought by silicosis-affected miners and their dependents, a R5-billion settlement with mining companies has been reached to pay out compensation, and is waiting to be stamped and sealed by the Gauteng High Court. Payouts of between R70,000 and R500,000 will be made, and mineworkers and their dependents have 12 years to submit claims. But Pakleppa is not hugely optimistic about this development, pointing out that the bureaucratic hurdles to getting claimants diagnosed, certified and paid out remain extremely onerous. “Previous examples of [these kinds of settlements] show you that people don’t get paid, they don’t get found, they just die,” he says…One of the points made by the documentary is that South African mining has been at the very heart of creating the vastly unequal society the country experiences to this day. At the documentary’s end, the voice-over carries a warning: “It would be too easy to only point at the mining companies and the state because all of us who benefit from this economy are complicit