Turning her head to hide her tears, Lillian Ramathabane rummages through her handbag and pulls out her husband’s neatly-folded death certificate. Renal failure, it declares, under cause of death. “I remember how Albert was always tired and couldn’t walk, how his nose would bleed all the time,” says the mother-of-four, quietly. “He suffered too much.”
She is sitting in the winter sun in Alfred Sepepe’s yard in Saulsville, five minutes from Pelindaba, SA’s main nuclear complex, outside Pretoria. Ramathabane tells how her husband worked at the nuclear centre, which was used to produce atomic bombs during the apartheid-era, as a labourer until the late 1990s. “I believe it was because he worked there that he fell sick,” she says resolutely. “They didn’t allow him to see private doctors. He could only see the company’s doctors.”
For years, Ramathabane, who battled to raise her children alone, has clung to the hope that she, along with scores of other sickly ex-workers and the relatives of those who had perished, would be compensated. But that last hope, vested for the past eight years in a protracted investigation by the office of the public protector, is fast fading.
Last week, Public Protector (PP) advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, released a long-awaited report into allegations of maladministration by the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) against its ex-workers. However, her report made no findings about whether they were illegally exposed to radiation and hazardous chemicals. Albert died on the same day - January 24, 2007 - that a group of his former colleagues handed a memorandum to Necsa’s former chief executive, Rob Adams, demanding compensation for those who were sick or had died from occupational-related diseases.
It’s a date, like so many others in the workers’ battle for compensation, that is burned into Sepepe’s memory. For nearly 20 years, the ex-Pelindaba worker turned nuclear activist has almost single-handedly championed the compensation bid for his sick colleagues, assisted by the Pelindaba Working Group.
Sepepe spent 11 years as a maintenance and decontamination worker at Pelindaba in the 1990s, but maintains he was never provided with protective gear.
In 1997, doctors discovered he had testicular cancer. “The doctors asked me how many children I had.” He holds up three fingers. “They told me I would not have any more children and removed my testicles. My wife left me. I lost my job. I lost everything.”
This year, the frail-looking 66-year-old was diagnosed with lung cancer. “I last smoked 30 years ago,” says Sepepe, his smart jacket hanging loosely on his thin frame.
“I believe the cancer started there at Pelindaba because I was working with dangerous chemicals. This was the time of apartheid, and if you didn’t do what you were told, you were chased away.”
In 2004, Sepepe encouraged former workers to take part in a limited health study by independent occupational health expert Dr Murray Coombs, who was contracted by NGO Earthlife Africa. The study was triggered by the November 2001 death of chemical engineer Victor Motha at Pelindaba. The 21-year-old had inhaled a fluoride gas used to process uranium for fuel in nuclear reactors and died in hospital.
Coombs was only able to assess 208 of the many hundreds of workers, and while he discarded the merits of about 25% of those he assessed, he concluded the merits of a probable compensation claim were valid for about 75% of the workers. Alarm about Pelindaba’s former workers led to a parliamentary committee hearing in 2007, which Sepepe and other workers attended, but government involvement largely ended there.
Since 2010, their case has been at the public protector’s office, where Sepepe has made hundreds of visits. But the report, he believes, has largely ignored the complainants. In Allegations of Maladministration in the Matter Between Mr MA Sepepe and Others and Necsa, the Public Protector writes how most of the complainants were ex-employees, while some were sub-contractors previously contracted at Necsa had worked for Necsa from the 1990s until the early 2000s.
“They alleged that they were suffering from medical conditions from working at the Pelindaba site. They were not informed about the possible risk of radiation contamination; they were neither given any safety training nor protective clothing; and in some cases, they were not legally authorised to work in radiation areas but were instructed to deal with so-called ‘clean ups’.”
But Mkhwebane could find no proof of harm. “The majority of complainants were never tasked to deal with hazardous materials, and none had any security clearance to access high-risk areas. The available information shows that they were not exposed to hazardous chemicals. There was no conclusive evidence presented indicating there were any employees who died because of radiation exposure."
Death certificates “only revealed the deaths were from natural causes”, she stated, adding that a substantial period of time had passed between the period the complainants left Necsa’s employment and “when they started complaining about the issue”. But Sepepe is discouraged.
“The findings do little more than give Necsa a slap on the wrist while leaving many former workers, many of whom are now dead, and their families with no recourse after many years of being let down by a system meant to protect them, not least the Public Protector.”
Sepepe and his cohort of former workers are now pushing for a high court judicial review of Mkhwebane’s report. “Enough is enough. We’re tired of the government ducking and diving,” he says.
In finding “no proof” of the claims and dismissing Coombs’ preliminary findings, he argues that Mkhwebane overstretched her jurisdiction by purporting to rule on occupational diseases of a mere seven of the 406 complainants acknowledged. “It cannot be assumed that all sick workers contracted occupationally-related illnesses, but certainly proof already exists that many did.”
That the PP did not consult occupational health experts and the state-funded National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) is a major flaw, Sepepe believes.
“If workers believe they are sick because of the risks they are exposed to at work, then they have the right to be assessed for that, and to be reassured they either do or don’t have a work-related medical problem,” says Dr Sophia Kisting, the chief executive of the NIOH, who has long been empathetic to the ex-Necsa workers’ plight.
“They should have the opportunity to get a second opinion, if they so wish.” Theirs is a complex case. “Given our history, its incumbent upon us to use scientific rigour to find answers to complex medical problems. If workers became sick in spite of the legal framework to protect them, then they are entitled to protection and to have the opportunity to see whether they can still explore other medical avenues to find closure.
“These would be workers who would see fellow workers die and who would live with the weight every day that it could happen to them. It’s about the basic human rights of workers.”
Sepepe maintains there were several sufficiently strong cases of workers who had extensive documentation and medical records “however the investigation appears to have ignored them”. Mkhwebane’s report ignores recommendations and findings in previous reports under her predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, for an arbitration process so that workers would be compensated for occupational diseases, illnesses and related deaths.
“Instead of examining the can of worms that led to the complaint, Mkhwebane appears to have shown a soft spot for the defendants’ to remain non-transparent and secretive.” The investigation, he says, sought mainly the “advice of and consulted with experts aligned to the industry and Necsa. The possibility that the current PP may have altered crucial remedial action in the previous reports prepared by her predecessor cannot be ruled out.”
That the report focuses on Motha who, despite an official compensation settlement for his death, was not one of the complainants, hurts widow Amanda Daniels, too. In the late 1990s her husband, Harold, a security officer, was called into a building to extinguish a radioactive fire at Pelindaba.
“The health impacts caused his sudden illness, which led to his retrenchment. He died from lung and brain cancer. But because he was a smoker, Necsa rejected liability,” says Sepepe.
Mkhwebane did find that inadequate medical records of employees were kept by Necsa before 2005; that allegations that Necsa failed to follow due process when dealing with the Compensation Fund were substantiated, and there was a failure by Necsa to conduct a proper investigation into Motha’s death.
Necsa chief executive Phumzile Tshelane acknowledges it did face challenges in confirming credentials of some of the affected former employees, partly because some were contract workers. “There was also a long time period lapse since these ex-employees exited employment at the Necsa site,” Tshelane says.
Ex-employees were referred to the Department of Labour, in line with the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Disease Act, whose requirements Necsa complies with. A 2003 investigation found no evidence of negligence on how Necsa handled the investigation into Motha’s death, Tshelane adds.
Mashile Phalane, former Earthlife Africa co-ordinator, has termed the report a “whitewash” while the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy, too, has described the report as a travesty of justice, which has “let Necsa, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR), the Compensation Fund, and the Department of Labour entirely off the hook”.
Cheryllyn Dudley, ACDP MP, is now calling for broad-based parliamentary inquiry into corruption, mismanagement, and lack of accountability in the nuclear industry. “The report stopped short of ensuring justice for former workers in the nuclear industry,” she says.
Mkhwebane’s remedial action recommends that the NNR and Necsa must within 60 days, subject employees to further evaluation and provide all employees with exit medical certificates. Tshelane says Necsa welcomes this, but Sepepe says his ailing, elderly colleagues are wary.
“The workers are generally very afraid of Necsa and its intentions,” remarks Judith Taylor, of Earthlife Africa. Next week, Sepepe, who has attended funerals of scores of his colleagues over the years, will return to the doctor to hear his prognosis. “I think they are looking for me to die and then everything will be over.”