Durban - ‘We have been forgotten”. This is the message from former Assmang workers to billionaire philanthropist Patrice Motsepe, whose pledge to give away half the income from his family’s assets to the poor has won the admiration of the country.
Motsepe has been praised by both the ANC and the official opposition DA, but his gesture has been described as “hollow” by the lawyer representing the workers from Assmang’s Cato Ridge manganese smelter.
Ten workers have been suffering from crippling disability and sickness since they were diagnosed with manganism in 2006, allegedly as a result of working in a poisonous environment of manganese dust and fumes at the factory. Two have since died.
Eight workers died in a furnace explosion at the factory in 2008. The police and the National Prosecuting Authority are still busy with criminal investigations into the factory, which is partly owned by Motsepe’s JSE-listed African Rainbow Minerals (ARM).
Richard Spoor, the lawyer acting for the eight manganese poisoning victims, said Motsepe’s philanthropic gesture to give away “at least half” of the income from his family assets to charity was “hollow” in light of the workers’ plight.
Motsepe’s family established the Motsepe Foundation in 1999 to oversee philanthropic initiatives and millions has flowed from the trust to churches and charities. Motsepe said this week that the foundation had given R20 million to churches last year.
However, Spoor said Motsepe had done “absolutely nothing” to address the workers’ plight. “Assmang persists in its view that these workers do not have an occupational disease, notwithstanding the fact that the compensation commissioner recognises that they have the disease and several neurologists have said they have manganism,” Spoor said.
Brian Anderson, 61, who worked at Assmang for 35 years said he was angry and “totally depressed” when he heard about Motespe’s gesture.
“I am not just talking on my behalf but also for a handful of black employees who are really suffering and don’t have medical aid. One is in a wheelchair and one is in a walker,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he believed Motsepe “isn’t even fully aware of us. It is all filtered from the attorneys and the problem is he is only going to listen to Assmang. Of course we fall into that category (of disabled and poor) and more so because we were his employees.”
Anderson said paying compensation to the workers “would be not even a drop in the ocean” of Motsepe’s estimated R24 billion fortune.
Simon Miya, 64, of Cato Ridge, said he was battling to survive.
“He never compensated us, and we can’t afford to pay school fees, we are struggling,” said Miya. Motsepe was not being fair with the pledge.
“He is giving away that money, but we are not being treated fairly and paid for our suffering,” said Miya.
Spoor said: “The men are living in a permanent state of uncertainty and fear. Assmang appealed against the decision of the compensation commissioner to award them workmen’s compensation, to stop them from getting their money.
“Mr Motsepe should perhaps pay some attention to the victims of his own business activities, who his companies’ activities have made sick and injured, before making public gestures. Get your own house in order and then help the rest of the world,” Spoor said.
“His money he is offering to distribute is built on the labour of these workers. They’ve been injured and hurt and he is prepared to distribute that money to others. What nonsense is that? There is a serious contradiction here between the magnanimous gesture and the everyday life of his workers where there is contempt. It is hollow,” Spoor said.
African Rainbow Minerals chief executive Mike Schmidt, responding on behalf of Motsepe, said: “The Department of Labour conducted an extensive inquiry into whether or not the workers you refer to did indeed contract manganism as a result of their employment by Assmang. We are eagerly awaiting the outcome of that enquiry so that this matter can be laid to rest once and for all.
“Pending the release of the findings of the inquiry, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the case.”
Schmidt said Motsepe’s Giving Pledge demonstrated his genuine commitment to contributing significantly towards the improvement of the lives and living conditions of South Africans, especially the poor and marginalised.