Zambia was a major contributor to South African labour from the 1930s to mid-sixties.

Most of the labour went underground in South Africa’s gold mines. Many of those miners are also dead and gone, but their money may be sitting in the vaults of South Africa’s banks, as John Mukela reports.

MILLIONS of Kwacha in pension fund benefits for hundreds of Zambian ex-miners and their families lie unclaimed in South African banks, according to data from the Southern African Resource Watch (SARW).

The money is due to Zambian miners, most of whom are dead, and is part of an estimated 47.3 Billion South African Rands (over $3 Billion) that sits unclaimed, according to a recent report by South Africa’s Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA).

“Eighty percent of the unclaimed funds are with trade union-affiliated pension funds and the majority of these unpaid members are low-income miners,” says the FSCA.

The majority of affected Zambian miners were part of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WENELA) labour pool, together with their counterparts from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Data released by the Southern African Resource Watch (SARW) shows that Zambia is third on the list of countries in the region with the highest proportionate distribution of unclaimed social security benefits. Top of the list is South Africa (21%), followed by Tanzania (19%) with Zambia and Mozambique in joint third (12%).

Explaining the methodology used to calculate the social security benefits for the various countries, Dr. Charles Maibvise of the University of Swaziland told MakanDay that the SSB mapping was a brief hybrid study “contextualised to try to create a snapshot of the unclaimed benefits in SADC, their distribution and the identification of the role players involved.”

“The issue of benefits has been a complex and perennial problem, and yet seems to remain unresolved after a longtime. We should move beyond just discussing how difficult the problem is. Let us see how we can unpack the problem and find solutions,” he charged.

Zambia: A Special Case

Claiming the money and getting it out of South Africa promises to be a mammoth task for Zambia.

Labour experts acknowledge the lack of leadership not only from the South African government, but crucially also from labour sending SADC countries to resolve the many problems identified.

The SADC secretariat has also been singled out for its lethargic inaction in formulating responses to coordinate and harmonise policies on unpaid benefits across Southern Africa.

The Ministry of Labour in Lusaka has yet to respond to an interview request by MakanDay.

Zambia’s Wenela experience is a special case in several ways.

From its genesis as a South African labour pool in the 1930s, thousands of miners were instantly excluded following the overnight decree by the Kenneth Kaunda-led independence government to disband the Wenela labour system, through which men had found jobs in the South African mines.

While labour migration had begun much earlier at the turn of the century, the majority of these workers were from the then Barotseland, which had signed up to the Wenela agreement in 1935 until its abrupt termination in 1966.

What is still a festering sore is the manner in which Wenela was terminated “abruptly – at a stroke, with an announcement,” without giving due consideration of the repercussions, explains politician and writer Akashambatwa Lewanika (Pictured below).

“They did not consult the individual people concerned, or the public authority that was managing that relationship, so they did it unilaterally,” says Lewanika.

Another difficulty is accessing the details of eligible ex-miners and the mines where they worked, with most of them dead. Meanwhile, miners who went on to develop and die of mining-related conditions such as TB and silicosis are also eligible. But since they are dead, the onus is on their dependants to take the matter forward.

But the process is hindered by the long time that has already elapsed, coupled with the lack of documented proof in many instances, and the absence of an association in Zambia charged with spearheading necessary follow-up.

Lewanika sees the setting up of an association as a process that would jump-start the matter.

He dismisses arguments suggesting that the people involved are “too few,” or that “many of them have died,” as neither here nor there.

“There are also descendants, even for historical records, we need to know,” he says.

“What were the historical consequences of this abrupt stoppage? Who were injured? We have to revisit those who complained? What were their complaints? We have to refresh those complaints. Those communities that were en-route to being beneficiaries, despite the negativities of the process, what have they lost? Are they not entitled to redress?” he asks.

Regional Perspective

The issue of unclaimed benefits is a serious issue facing migrant workers throughout the world. At the end of their employment contracts, migrant workers often struggle to access their social security benefits.

SARW notes that the situation is far more acute in southern Africa because of the migratory movement to South Africa by people within the SADC countries “such as Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and to some extent Zambia.”

“For generations, these migrant mineworkers have contributed to the socio-economic development of South Africa. The circular migration in southern Africa is not likely to come to an end any time soon,” SARW communications executive Masutane Modjadji told MakanDay from Johannesburg.

“Many of these migrant mineworkers have not been paid their social security benefits, which remain with social security funds and investment schemes. Sometimes they lack adequate documentation to claim what is due to them,” she said.

Vama Jele is the Swazi-based regional coordinator of the Southern Africa Miners Association (SAMA).

In an interview from Mbabane, he told MakanDay that it was necessary to capture the data of how many ex-Zambian miners were eligible for compensation in order to facilitate a coordinated approach based on the actual numbers of affected ex-miners.

Additional information such as identity documents to verify the miners, the names of the mines that they had worked for and the duration of their engagement at these mines are some of the key facts that will expedite any follow-up action.

However, the lack of a Zambian association, specifically charged with delving into this case is a major drawback and without such a body, not much can be achieved.

Another area of concern is that many miners suffered debilitating diseases such as tuberculosis and silicosis, after the cessation of their employment.

“We would also like to get information of those who suffered TB or silicosis during their term of employment or after their departure from the mines,” Jele said.

“Remember that some of them died in the mines and their families are supposed to be receiving some money every month towards their upkeep,” he added.

According to Jele, if these families can be identified, together with any supporting documentation, the paperwork can be scanned to SAMA as a starting point for SAMA to take the matter further.

But Jele cautions that whoever is driving the process “will need to have an association registered in Zambia. Then we can also try to link up this association.”

Progress Made

Despite the hurdles, some progress appears to have been made.

Over the last year, the FSCA says it has made progress on its unclaimed benefits search engine, helping over 14,000 individuals receive payments worth approximately R1.2 Billion. However, none of these people are Zambians, because the FSCA’s unclaimed benefits search engine is oriented to South African resident miners, and excludes the thousands of migrant ex-miners from other countries.

Hope came through a 5 Billion Rand ($332 million) class action settlement approved by the Johannesburg High Courtin July 2019 after a long legal battle by miners to win compensation for illnesses contracted over the decades because of negligence in health and safety.

Hailed as “historic,” the settlement was the first of its kind in South Africa. It created a Trust to compensate all eligible workers suffering from silicosis or tuberculosis who worked in the mines from 1965 to date as well as their dependants.

The settlement includes a significant budget for the Trust to locate potential members, medically examine eligible miners and provide compensation to all qualifying class members.

“I am pleased with this settlement. We have managed to provide access to justice and meaningful compensation to thousands of current and former gold mine workers and their dependants spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Motley Rice, a lawyer linked to the case, soon after the court judgment.

With the money sitting in the vaults of South Africa’s banks, for Zambia’s ex-miners who might have been eligible, the majority of them dead and gone, or for their descendants – many languishing in poverty, retrieving Wenela’s “missing” millions might just finally bring closure to an old injustice.

Main Photo: Mining artifacts/South-Africa