Fighting TB in Africa’s Mines

Ed note. This is a special guest post by Musa Mkoko a former gold miner in South Africa. A version of his op-ed appeared in print in the Swazi Observer and is reprinted here with permission. 

This week, Cape Town will host the world’s largest gathering of African mining executives, investors and government officials for the Investing in African Mining Indaba Conference. If mining is to truly benefit African people, conference delegates must work together to end the plague of tuberculosis among miners and their communities.

Tuberculosis has been an emergency among Africa’s miners for one hundred years. Today it is a scandal. TB is spreading from South Africa’s mines to communities across the region, hurting profits and destroying lives.

I started working in the mines in 1980. I woke up very early. There were trains that brought other miners and me to South Africa from our homes in Swaziland.

When we arrived at the mines we found that the working conditions were very bad. The dust was thick like a cloud, and we breathed this dust over many hours. I later learned that this dust is deadly. It creates silicosis, and it made us helpless to fight off TB as it damaged our lungs.

Coughing was common among workers in the mine. Some coughed up TB germs. Though we could not see them, the germs floated in the air along with the dust, and we breathed the germs in.

Even though the conditions were bad, I was thankful for my job. I worked very hard. My job allowed me to support myself and my family.

Then I became sick with TB. I began to lose weight. At night I experienced sweats that made it impossible to sleep. I began to cough like others I worked with. I was very weak.

I returned to my home in Swaziland. I was eventually told that my TB was drug resistant. Treatment for drug resistant TB is very expensive, is two years long, and is very difficult. I took 25 pills every day. I could not miss a treatment.

The medicines have side effects that are also very bad. One of the medicines used to treat drug resistant TB has made me almost deaf. But I continued to take the pills, or I would not be here today.

Miners in Africa have the highest rate of TB in the world. And when we are sick, we are not the only people who suffer. Many miners live far from the mines, and we are often sent home when we become sick with TB. Our TB then spreads in our communities.

TB has affected my whole family. Because I am now too weak to work, my wife had to get a job far away from our home. She comes home only on the weekends, and then she has to care for me and for our children. My illness is very difficult for her. Without her labor and care, I would be dead and my family would be impoverished.

We are blessed to have great wealth in natural resources in our region. South Africa alone has $2.5 trillion in natural resources—the richest of all the countries in the world.

But metals and stones are not as precious as human beings.

I thank our government officials who understand this. They know now that TB must be removed from the mines if TB is to be removed from Africa.

Last year, leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community committed to stopping TB in the mines. SADC leaders continue to build upon this effort, and I was grateful to be a part of these consultations and to share my story with our region’s health
ministers. Now I call on the Indaba delegates to stand behind the SADC initiative and quickly respond to the TB emergency in the mines.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said recently, “Working conditions in the mines are inhumane and untenable.” Only by treating mining workers as beings made in the image of God will we enjoy the bounty of our natural resources and protect our people from this dreaded disease.

Musa Mkoko lives in Kashoba, Swaziland and worked as a gold miner in South Africa for nearly 15 years in and around Carletonville, South Africa.