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Ex-miners’ painful wait for benefits

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KAMTUKULE— The
government will have no role to play in paying the beneficiaries

For three decades, Malawians who worked in South African mines between 1970 and 1989 have fought a long painful battle that has culminated in some of them being tear-gassed and others being arrested as they fight for their pension money. To 81 ex-miners, the battle is about to be won while others can hope against hope that, one day, they will lay their hands on their money. RICHARD CHIROMBO writes.

If 81-year-old Michael Sauzande Marten had his way, he would have strung from the nearest tree those he suspects of delaying his benefits, after he served in South African mines for over 15 years.

He is one of the Malawians that claim to have worked in South African mines between 1970 and 1989.

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He has followed, often impatiently events related to the ex-miners’ pension money since 1990 but, each time, his hope has faded into disappointment.

At no other time than March 2017 was he more hopeful of, finally, getting his pension money.

That year, Southern Africa Trust engaged South African public leaders and experts on the issue of miners that worked under the Employment Bureau of Africa (Teba) in South Africa.

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For the first time since 1989, Southern Africa Trust brought the issue to the attention of the powers-that-be in the Rainbow Nation after organising a panel discussion “on the disbursement of R5.7 billion unpaid mining worker benefits in the Sadc [Southern African Development Community] region”.

Southern Africa Trust Advocacy Intern, Mathe Griffiths, indicated that the event was aimed at “tackling the challenges former mineworkers face in accessing social security and compensation benefits”.

The then South Africa deputy minister of mineral resources, Godfrey Oliphant, who participated in the discussion, assured ex-miners in Sadc countries, Malawi inclusive, that “something” would be done on their issue.

Ex-miners Association of Malawi (Ema) President John Dick was as elated as Sauzande Marten at the time, saying the panel discussion helped South African officials appreciate the implication of delaying pension payments further.

“Otherwise, we have been pushing mountains on our part. We have been facing a lot of challenges,” Dick said.

This was after, in 2016, Malawian ex-miners had sought the High Court of Malawi’s intervention, restraining the Ministry of Labour from going ahead with an exercise meant to register ex-miners.

Records at the High Court Principal Registry in Blantyre indicate that Judge Rowland Mbvundula made an order on September 19 2016, restraining the Minister of Labour and Vocational Training, the Principal Secretary of Labour and Vocational Training, the Deputy Commissioner of Labour (who were the Respondents) from going ahead with the nationwide ex-Teba miners’ registration exercise.

The development followed the Ministry of Labour’s decision to start registering ex-miners on September 15 2015, three days before the ex-miners launched a similar exercise.

The case, Judicial Review Number 64 of 2014, was set for hearing before the two parties resolved the issue on their own.

The court battle was just one of the ‘fights’ the aggrieved ex-miners took against the government and those representing it. There have been countless battles since the ex-miners came back to Malawi from 1989 onwards.

For example, in March 1998, two Zomba ex-miners, namely Yusufu Yasini and William Malele, were convicted of defying Malawi Police Service (MPS) agents’ orders to dismantle roadblocks mounted during a demonstration organised to express displeasure at government’s reluctance to pay their deferred payments, remittances and terminal benefits.

The two men spent seven weeks in prison for their daring act.

This is despite that, in 1989, the South African government established the Mineworkers Provident Fund (MPF) with the aim of accommodating negotiated benefits between the Chamber of Mines and the National Union of Mineworkers.

Ironically, according to a report which MPF presented to the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on Matters Related to Ex-Mine Workers in South Africa, the Board of Trustees of the fund proposed that the fund be closed to employers

“However, in August 1995, the board elected, based on advice it received, to retain the fund for lapsed members only, subject to the approval of the Registrar of Pension Funds. By September 2000, the fund consisted only of lapsed members (and) the only activity in the fund, besides an investment portfolio, was the ongoing tracing and pay-out to lapsed members no longer employed by any of the previously participating employers, and who failed to claim their benefits from the Fund when they left their employment,” the report reads.

MPF further claims that it has tried to trace ex-miners through Teba Limited, as the primary employment agency for mine labour, by writing letters to mines, visiting mines and communities contacting the MPF, Mine Employees Pension Fund and Sentinel Mining Industry Retirement Fund, tracing agents, and internet, to no avail.

Another report presented to the Ad Hoc Committee on Matters Relating to the Ex-Mineworkers’ Union established— after a motion was tabled in the National Assembly of South Africa on September 19 2007 for the establishment of a committee to look at the concerns of the Ex- Mineworkers Union— that, out of the original R54 million, R20.8 million still needed to be paid out to qualifying, but untraceable, beneficiaries.

According to Malawi officials, the problem they have been facing on the issue of pension funds for ex-miners is that of, as the ad hoc committee in South Africa noted, tracing beneficiaries.

No wonder, in July 2012, Malawi’s Commissioner for Labour Elias Zilikudonto, who had just retired in April that year, said the issue of Teba perks was “closed” sometime back.

“The ex-miners know that the issue of their money was closed some time back. That is a closed issue. But those who feel aggrieved can go to court,” Zilikudondo said at the time.

This riled the ex-miners, who, in March 2014, demanded an audience with the then president Joyce Banda.

Ema General Secretary Alfred Beseni said they wanted to meet Banda after observing that her “administration is not showing enough commitment to address our issues”.

“We feel that our concerns have not been addressed for a long time and it is high time we met the president. We actually wrote the president through the Ministry of Labour, demanding an audience with her on January 27 this year [2014] but we have not received any favourable response,” he said.

In a letter, dated January 27 2014 and addressed to Banda, the ex-miners indicated that they wanted to present their grievances in person. The letter, titled ‘Follow Up On Unpaid Employment Benefits for Ex-Miners That Worked in South Africa Under Teba’, read: “Your Excellency, kindly receive our humble request for an audience with you, Madam President, so that we can present our grievances with regard to our unpaid benefits as former employees in South Africa under Teba (and contracted with the South African Chamber of Mines.”

At that time, Beseni was 58 years old. Today, he is 65 years old.

When he came back to Malawi at the end of 1989, he was 33 years old, meaning that he has spent 32 years fighting for dues alongside hundreds others.

Finally, however, there is hope for Beseni and the other ex-miners as the government has announced that, next month, it will start paying the ex-miners their pension dues, starting with 81.

The total number of the ex-miners is 450 but only 81 will start getting their pension money because, according to government officials, the South African government has retrieved their records of service.

Labour Deputy Minister Vera Kamtukule said this on Wednesday, after some of the ex-miners had accused Ministry of Labour officials of duping them.

“Those that will be confirmed by the Provident Fund administrator will [have money] paid directly into their bank accounts through electronic money transfer and the government will have no role to play in paying the beneficiaries,” Kamtukule said.

Reacting to the development, Dick said the 81 earmarked ex-miners could finally forgive government officials for protracted delays as paperwork can sometimes be cumbersome.

“Remember that the employment agreement was terminated in 1988, which is 33 years ago. Most of the ex-miners have lost their supporting documents. We are working with the Government of Malawi to help us plead with the authorities in South Africa to waive some of the requirements,” he said.

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