Friday 09 November 2012

Olifantsfontein community and surrounds
groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa

Embargo: Tuesday 13 November 2012, 00:01

Worker and community profiles

Toxic Waste: Still a reality in a democratic South Africa
The fight for Environmental Justice continues against Thermopower in Olifantsfontein

Worker profile: Gabriel Mashamaite

"When they came to Olifantsfontein they promised us jobs. We wanted jobs; we were all desperate for a job. We needed money to support our families. And so they gave us the chemicals to work with." Gabriel Mashamaite's (38) only job in his life has been at the waste incineration plant Thermopower, earning R13 an hour since the age of 32 until he was dismissed in 2008. He grew up in Tembisa, a township situated near to Olifantsfontein and to Thermopower.

As 'operators' Gabriel and his colleagues only worked at night, travelling by truck to pick up often leaking or unlabelled drums filled with chemicals from Sasol, and returning to Thermopower to dispose of them. He describes how his supervisor would tell them to dump the chemicals "wherever they wanted" on the property, such as in storm water drains and in the ground.  This kind of improper disposal happened on a nightly basis. The workers knew no better as they were not sufficiently trained or educated neither about what chemicals they were disposing of nor the proper methods of disposal.

One night in July 2003, the drum Gabriel was draining exploded, burning his upper thighs and groin area. He was rushed to Tembisa hospital, being blamed by Thermopower for carelessness. At the time of the accident, Gabriel was wearing the limited protective clothing issued by Thermopower, which consisted only of white overalls and a gas mask. Having recovered in hospital and at home for under two weeks, Gabriel refused to return to do the same job and so he was assigned to burn the drums, remaining under the title of operator and still working only at night.

He was dismissed later on grounds of theft as he had taken his newly issued overalls and safety boots home with him. Due to theft amongst employees, he took them home for safekeeping. There were other workers who were dismissed on the same grounds, and who had also incurred previous injuries at Thermopower. They were each paid out R8000 for their service, and Gabriel was left still waiting for his compensation from his accident to be paid out.

A number of his colleagues and friends have died as a result of accidents at the plant or from being exposed to toxic chemicals over periods of time. One colleague was left blind after his face was burnt by chemicals. When another of his colleagues passed away and queries were made about his death being linked to his job, Thermopower's senior management blamed his death on HIV/AIDS when they were unaware of status.

Garbriel still waits today for his money. They will not let him into the building to claim his compensation as he exposed what had happened to media. He suffers from a rash in the burned area when it is hot, and because he has not received his compensation or UIF, he cannot afford to be treated by specialist doctors. He remains unemployed because of the physical difficulty he has due to his accident.

"There is no justice. I feel like I was in Iraq and bombed. That company must shut down and compensate us. They destroyed my life. Look at me, I am destroyed. I don't have a wife and children because of Thermopower. They don't know how to treat the chemicals and they don't care if they kill you".

Worker profile: Kenneth Mogwatseleng

Kenneth Mogwatseleng (39) wishes for nothing more than for Thermopower to be closed down as soon as possible. Having his genitalia burnt beyond function while disposing of 'liquid gas' at the plant, he has been left angry and desperate:  "My manhood has gone. It is the end of the road for me; there is no chance of becoming a proud husband and father."

He worked at Thermopower between 2001 and 2005 as an operator, disposing of chemicals at night, with little training on how to properly dispose of chemicals nor the knowledge of the kind of hazards these chemicals posed to his health. He recalls waste being stored illegally on the site, and having to hide this from the government authorities when they visited the company. While he and his colleagues felt underpaid and had a sense that "something wasn't right", in the beginning he still felt it was an opportunity to improve his life and job security. In 2005, however, the accident at Thermopower caused him to suffer from a second degree burn and rash, and paraesthesia which lead to erectile dysfunction.

Despite having been seriously injured on Thermopower's property, he was sent only to the local general doctor and to this day has not received compensation from the company. He was fired shortly afterwards for "no good reason", except that his medical bills made him an economic liability to Thermopower.

Due to his accident, his mobility is restricted therefore leaving him unemployed and reliant on a social grant from the state. He is normally housebound in Tswellopelle Informal Settlement near Thembisa where he lives with his sister. Nevertheless, he joined the Olifantsfontein and surrounding communities at the Kempton Park Magistrate's court last year to raise awareness of the serious health and environmental violations conducted by the company. For Kenneth, the numerous postponements of the court case involving Thermopower mean that "justice has been delayed for all the employees that have suffered at the hands of this company".

For Kenneth, Thermopower and its directors show "no respect for human life and the environment. They would rather destroy the environment and human health for the sake of profit. My health is gone, my manhood is gone and I can no longer fulfil the needs of a family because of Thermopower. This tells me that my dreams of a better life were destroyed".

Community profile: Themba Mahlangu

Restaurant chef and front-of-house host, Themba Mahlangu (43) moved from Johannesburg to Clayville in 2004, in search of a job and a better life to bring his four children up in with his wife.

Within a year of moving to Olifantsfontein, Themba and his family began developing illnesses that they had previously never suffered from. Themba was called in to his five year old daughter's school who was complaining of severe headaches. The clinic's optometrist gave her glasses as her eyes had rapidly deteriorated and there was fear of blindness. Themba's youngest daughter (3) suffers from continual bouts of skin rash and coughing.

For six months, Themba was treated for tuberculosis which he had developed since moving to his new home. His job security is constantly compromised, as he suffers daily from severe headaches, swollen, irritable eyes and a visible, itchy skin rash: "With my kind of work I can't be scratching in front of customers, so I often spend two or three days without going to work. But I am also worried that I will lose my job if I stay away from work a lot". All he is able to afford his an over-the-counter lotion to treat his rash which does little to help.

Doctors at the local clinic advise him to take himself and his children to specialists, but due to the ongoing burgeoning medical treatment he and his family needs, he is unable to pay for more costly treatment.  The impact on his health means that Themba is fighting a financial battle which means he cannot take his family or himself to receive proper treatment and this means his job is jeopardised. It has become an ongoing cycle, and despite occasionally wanting to move away from Clayville, Themba remains hopeful that things will change.

For Themba that change will come when Thermopower is shut down. He "smelt it first before knowing about Thermopower" which, like the rest of the Clayville community, forced him to keep windows closed and remain indoors. "Thermopower is a place for unwanted, dangerous chemicals and so it shouldn't be near people, it must be moved. People don't really know what it is so when they die they don't know why."

Many of his friends and neighbours have passed away this year, and others in the community speak of the various sicknesses and resulting financial burdens that they suffer from as a result of Thermopower's activities. Some have sold their houses and moved away, while others like Themba refuse to leave the place he has come to call home.

As another one of his neighbours is recently buried after complaining of severe headaches, he continues to worry about his children's health and whether they will survive living in such a heavily polluted environment.  He wants his children to achieve success at school, study further and find good jobs in a Clayville that is no longer home to Thermopower.

Community profile: Ayanda Mzungu*

Ayanda Mzungu was asked to resign from her office administrator job in Clayville after severe headaches caused her to regularly take days off work and created an unpleasant relationship with her employer. Wife and mother of four children, she moved with her family here in 2004 from Pretoria due to travelling distance and transport costs. "We wouldn't have come here if we knew about Thermopower and all the sickness it causes for the people here."

After various blood tests in 2006, doctors at the Baragwanath Hospital could not explain the cause of her headaches and she has been living on over-the-counter painkillers ever since. As both she and her husband are unemployed, she cannot afford further treatment.

Her second son complains of itching, burning eyes, and her third son has recently developed nosebleeds during break time at school. "If my children survive this thing, they want to learn further. They want to go to school and learn and live a better life. I want them to stay in Olifantsfontein."

"I don't see my future anymore if I'm still like this. If nothing is done and if there is nothing to help me and my children, I don't see my future, because I am suffering. "She calls on the government to act now and help the people of Olifantsfontein by removing Thermopower.
*Name has been changed for purposes of anonymity