SCORES of factory workers shuffled into a large hall in Cato Ridge in February 2007, anxious to tell the government inspectors how their bodies and brains had been crippled, allegedly from working in clouds of toxic manganese dust.
They were looking for “justice” and had high expectations of getting a fair hearing.
But, nearly six years down the line, they are still waiting for the government to tell them whether their old company has a criminal case to answer – or whether it deserves to be punished.
Back in early 2007, when the Labour Department began a formal public inquiry into health and working conditions at the factory, former Assmang foreman Joshua Haarhof recalled that he was a healthy 40-year-old family man when he started working at the massive manganese smelting works in Cato Ridge 14 years previously.
Now he was permanently brain-damaged, impotent, battling to walk, battling to sleep and battling to keep control of his twitching hands and shaky limbs.
Within just a few years of joining Assmang his health began to deteriorate and, by the age of 52, he had started walking with a crutch.
His colleague, Donny du Plessis, told the inquiry there were times when the dust levels were so thick workers could not see their hands in front of their faces and his throat burned when he breathed in the manganese furnace fumes.
“You would go home black and dirty every day. You had to blow your nose all the time to get rid of that black stuff inside,” Du Plessis told the inquiry.
At the age of 45, less than six years after joining the company, he was declared unfit for work and medically boarded because of disabilities deemed to be the result of exposure to toxic manganese dust.
One of the youngest workers to lose his job was Vissi Naicker who was medically boarded with manganism at the age of 34.
Medical specialists employed by the company accepted that at least nine colleagues were suffering from “manganism”, an occupational disease similar to Parkinson’s disease. Scores of other workers had also been classified with “suspected manganism”.
Other workers, like Simon Miya, Phikawazi Ngcobo and Nkosiyezwe Ndlovu, also hoped to tell their personal stories on how their health had deteriorated during their time at Assmang.
Instead, most of the inquiry time was taken up by legal arguments and technical disputes on how to measure dust levels in a factory. Assmang’s lawyers also challenged the evidence of several medical experts it had employed to examine dozens of workers suspected to be suffering from manganism.
Apparently dissatisfied with these medical conclusions, Assmang told the inquiry it had hired a new team of doctors and specialists which had declared that none of the positively diagnosed Assmang workers was suffering from manganism – even though members of the new team admitted to the inquiry that they had not physically examined any of these patients.
Halfway through the public inquiry there was also a furnace explosion at Assmang in which eight workers burnt to death.
Union sources later uncovered documents suggesting that four days before the explosion the company was warned in writing by expert technical consultants to shut down the furnace immediately because of the high risk of explosion.
Finally, in November 2008, the inquiry drew to a close, with promises that the final report would be sent to the chief inspector of labour and the National Prosecuting Authority for a decision on whether the company should be prosecuted.
But, one year later, before he could finalise the report, inquiry chairman Vuli Sibisi died from illness. The task of completing the report fell to his deputy, Edward Khambule, and other labour inspectors, and at some point in late 2010 the final report was sent to the chief inspector.
But this report was never made public.
The workers’ attorney, Richard Spoor, expressed strong dismay and argued that because it was a public inquiry, the final report should also be made public – the more so because these findings could contribute to the improvement of workplace safety at Assmang and other smelting factories.
Since then, opposition MPs have lodged a series of questions in Parliament on whether Assmang would be prosecuted.
Responding to the questions, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe revealed early last year that police were investigating two criminal charges against Assmang – but crucial evidence from the investigation docket had “gone missing”.
Radebe did not reveal whether the evidence had disappeared from the custody of the Labour Department or the police – nor whether it had been stolen or simply misplaced.
However, he said this evidence was being “reconstructed” by the Labour Department and the criminal cases were being investigated by a Colonel Zondi from the Organised Crime Unit.
Radebe also gave the assurance that the KZN deputy public prosecutor, an advocate Naicker, was handling the case and she had indicated that a final decision on prosecution would be made before March 30 last year.
When this deadline passed, DA MP Gareth Morgan sent further questions to Radebe, who confirmed that no decision had been made.
Radebe said that in addition to the original case records housed in three boxes, another 11 lever-arch files of evidence had since been received by the prosecutor.
“To expedite the finalisation of the review of the evidence, a further prosecutor was appointed,” he stated in April last year.
Late last year, The Mercury sent further questions to NPA spokesmen Mthunzi Mhaga and Natasha Ramkisson, requesting updates.
“I have forwarded your query to the prosecutor and am awaiting her response,” Ramkisson replied on August 29.
This week, The Mercury sent further questions to Ramkisson, who responded:
“A decision in the Assmang matter has not been finalised.
“Further investigation is still being conducted. The prosecutor has scheduled a follow-up meeting with the investigating officer, Captain Khumalo (for this week).
“A decision cannot be reached until our instructions in respect of further investigation have been complied with and the information obtained as the result of further investigation is thoroughly studied.”
In its latest annual report, African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) stated: “Exposure to excessive manganese levels over a period of time can result in a range of psychiatric and motor disturbances similar to Parkinson’s disease.
“We take all practicable precautionary steps to limit exposure to manganese and have control measures in place to prevent exposure to dust and fumes.
“Where the risk of exposure to fumes has been identified, workers are obliged to wear respiratory protective equipment.
“The findings of the inquiry convened by the Department of Labour into the alleged cases of manganism at the Cato Ridge Works, which inquiry was completed during 2008 and which matter has been reported on in previous reporting periods, have still not been made available to the company. Thus, the final outcome in this matter is still awaited.”