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Steven Maleka worked at Pelindaba and believes his skin condition, asthma and heart problems are because of chemical exposure. Steven Maleka worked at Pelindaba and believes his skin condition, asthma and heart problems are because of chemical exposure. PICTURES . SIMONE KLEY

Desperately seeking justice

Written by  Sheree Bega Sunday, 18 December 2016 06:21
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Ill workers and families want the nuclear body to own up~ published in Canvas Life by Sheree Bega

HAROLD Daniels had no choice - he had to grow up fast. It was either that or watch his grieving mother, suddenly lost without an income, struggle even more. The  teenager dropped out of high school and went searching for a job to pay the bills.

Today Daniels, who shares his father's name, is a debt collector who chases recalcitrant car owners - it's work that runs on commission and he doesn't earn much.

In a way, he says, it feels as if the painful death of his father, a security guard at Pelindaba nearly 20 years ago, killed his dreams too.

In early 1997, the 40-year-old died of lung and brain cancer, six months after he had been retrenched from the nuclear research facility near Hartbeespoort Dam, run by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), where he had worked for 15 years.

He had fallen gravely ill after extinguishing a "radiation fire" at the plant in 1996. Daniels, who had complained his arm and neck were stiff and his stomach swollen, refused to accept the R43 000 severance package his family claims Necsa proffered. In D the  end, his wife, Amanda, had to sign for it.

"When my father started to get sick, that's when they they (Necsa) told him to leave," charges Daniels. 

"They knew he was going to die and they didn't want him working for them. I remember how tragic and hard it was, visiting him in hospital as he lay there dying."

Now, 64, his mother, Amanda, never remarried.

"Harold was a wonderful husband and a hard-working man," she says, fondly. "We were building our home when he got sick after he ran into that building to stop the fire. They sent him home to die with nothing," remembers Amanda, who lives with her son in Ekurhuleni. Daniels's case - one of two confirmed deaths attributed to radiation exposure at Pelindaba at the time - was among 11 Necsa employees Dr Murray Coombs, an independent occupational expert, referred to the compensation commissioner in 2006.

Non-profit organisation Earthlife Africa had commissioned Coombs to conduct tests on its workers three years after Victor Motha's death in 2001. After inhaling a fluoride gas - used to process uranium for fuel in nuclear reactors - at Pelindaba, the 21-year old came home on November 21, complaining of nausea, and a burning in his throat and chest.

He started vomiting and died that night in hospital.

The then energy minister, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, sent a letter and promised to investigate his death, but his family maintains that that is where correspondence with the department stopped, says the 2011 Greenpeace report, The Trust Cost of Nuclear Power in SA, released in 2011.

His family reportedly received just R6 000 in compensation. In 2007, Daniels was among a group of ailing ex-Pelindaba employees who told a parliamentary inquiry how they had fallen ill because of exposure to nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals at "secretive" agencies such as the Uranium Enrichment Corporation of South Africa and the Atomic Energy Corporation, where highly enriched uranium was used to create nuclear weapons during apartheid.  

In her desperate plea for justice, she told parliamentary officials how she had not received a cent of compensation  and how Necsa reportedly failed to pay out her husband's life policy because he had skipped two instalments.

Officials promised to investigate the claims of nuclear exposure, but nearly a decade later she and her husband's colleagues are still waiting.

Since 2010, their final hope has rested at the Office of the Public Protector, but its investigation, too, has been fraught with delays.

The probe centres on Necsa's alleged failure to acknowledge or compensate the workers for occupational illnesses and a failure by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) in its legislated mandate to ensure the protection of workers.

"The investigation is in its final stages," says Oupa Segalwe, spokesman for the office of the Public Protector. "The only matter that was outstanding was the specialist medical testing of seven volunteers of the complainants to ascertain if it can be medically established that they were exposed to radiation. This  process took a while to complete but we have just received the full medical report from all the medical specialists." The NNR footed the bill for these medical tests.

Segalwe says its investigators are studying the report. "We've scheduled a joint meeting between ourselves. the Compensation Commissioner and Necsa for early January - wherein we will address all issues around outstanding claims by complainants not yet paid by the commission. It is envisaged that the report will be finalised early next year."

The NNR says it "will wait for the due process of the public protector and take it from there" while Necsa this week took the same approach. "The matter of the former Pelindaba workers is under investigation by the Office of the Public Protector. Necsa is unable to comment on an ongoing investigation as it is an affected party," it says.

For her part, Daniels looks to a former Uranium Enrichment Corporation worker, 62-year-old Alfred Sepepe, who has become a champion of their plight, for hope.

"Alfrad's the only one who fights for us. All the meetings we've been to in Atteridgeville over the years, he organised them and still does. He has sat at the Public Protector's Office for days," she says of the anti-nuclear activist. It was Sepepe who helped motivate former Pelindaba workers to take part in Coombs's occupational health study.

Last month, at the international Nuclear Free Future Awards, he was honoured for his work "to see that the South African nuclear industry worker health problems are acknowledged as occupational disabilities brought on by radiation exposure". Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive for a Sustainable Environment, who presented Sepepe with his award, lauds his activism: "Despite extreme difficulties Alfred remains the only voice for scores of uncompensated former nuclear industry workers.

"By continuing to singularly keep alive this unresolved issue is a tribute to this man's determination and tenacity, which he funds from his meagre pension earnings.

"The thin, wiry Sepepe says his 11 years spent as a maintenance and decontamination worker at Pelindaba from 1989 made him sick - he claims he was never provided with protective gear - until doctors discovered he had testicular cancer: He was operated on at a hospital in Ga-Rankuwa in 1999.

"They asked me how many children I had. I told them I had three. They told me I would not have any more and removed my testicles." He was left impotent.

Back at work in Pelindaba, Sepepe recalls how he was unexpectedly informed his work was being phased out and he was being retrenched. "When I asked my supervisor, they told me I shouldn't ask questions or I wouldn't get a payout," he recalls, claiming he was offered R20 000 for his silence. Necsa has consistently rebutted claims it ever retrenched sick workers.

Sepepe lives in a tiny room at the back of his mother's property in Saulsville, ear Pelindaba. His neatly-made bed is scattered with pamphlets on uranium mining and how to stop South Africa's nuclear ambitions.

But for many, the fight has been too long. Sepepe has laid 62 of his colleagues to rest over the years.

"It's been years of fighting but I won't give up. They must compensate us because too many people are sick. I want my children to have a home. We've taken this issue to the president, to the minister of energy. Nothing has been done. All you ever hear from the public protector is Nkandla, Nkandla. What about us?"

The Greenpeace report notes how those who battle on for compensation "fear the state and its nuclear industry are waiting until we all die for the problem to go away".

Steven Maleka, a gardener, shows his battered, festering legs. Now in his 70s, he worked at Pelindaba from the 1980s and remembers plodding through "red and blue water" that would run inside his boots. "I've been in and out of hospital for years. It's too painful to work." 

In his neat home in a nondescript street in Atteridgeville, Percy Msimanga walks slowly to the lounge from his bedroom, leaning heavily on his crutches. Now in his 80s, his asthma makes it hard to breathe.  Msimanga worked in a boiler room at Pelindaba until the early 1990s - after he fell sick, he says, he was paid out R27 000 and told to go. He was too ill to work again. "Please help me get my money." he pleads.

Judith Taylor, of Earthlife Africa Joburg, has her doubts.

"The situation will be stretched out until no one is left, but I'm open to being surprised."

Like Taylor, Samson Mohlolo's family have run out of hope. His daughter, Julia, sits in her gown in their home in Atteridgeville trying to comfort her 92-year-old father, who has stomach cancer.  The former maintenance worker was retrenched from Pelindaba after his cancer was discovered.

"When he's sick, he always says he wishes he had never worked there. He was trying to provide for us but he never could work again.  There's no justice in this world."

MORE than 500 ill workers sought help from environmental NGO Earthlife Africa around the turn of the century. 

Dr Murray Coombs, an independent occupational health expert, examined 208  workers. His report in 2006 revealed that 40 percent of the workers suffered probable occupation- related illnesses, including lung cancer, asthma and lung fibrosis as well as skin conditions. Findings couldn't be made for 62 workers because of missing information from the employer. Coombs concludes there will be a significant increase in disease among ex-workers over the next 20 years.

What the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation said about its own R3.5 million investigation Necsa's independent occupational medical doctor examined 50 workers, correlating with their medical records. Not one presented symptoms related to radiation. Most of the group were workers who had been retrenched, aged between 40 and 61, and their "financial burden may have allowed for a high self-selection".

In its 2016 report, Necsa states that high safety standards ensure that no employees are exposed to radiation. Workers were put through monitoring for full blood count and urine testing. None presented with abnormal blood results. 


Notification of the Withdrawal of the Application of an Amendment of the Environmental Authorisation and Environmental Management Programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining Operation in Free State

The concerted efforts and submissions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Applicant and its appointed Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) by the Protect Vaal Eden Committee, Vaal Eden community, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have resulted in the withdrawal of the application of an amendment of the environmental authorisation and environmental management programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining operation adjacent to the Vaal River.  The EAP was notified by the DMRE that further specialist studies would be required to determine the impact the application for a screening plant and process would have on the environment and that a Regulation 31 amendment process, which involves a public participation process, must be undertaken.  The FSE welcomes the DMRE’s notification. Notification letter attached for download

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 


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