Leroy Dzenga and Pretiosa Chimuti
WENELA — pronounced Wenera by many — evokes nostalgia in most senior citizens in Zimbabwe.
It was a place of hope, dreams, sweat and tears. Some went and never returned, which was euphemistically called “Kuchonera Wenera” by the elderly.
It often happened when economic pilgrims failed to resist the dazzling lights in Johannesburg. Some families never heard from their loved ones again.
It was a journey into the unknown, as young men from across Southen Africa went to work in South African mines in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The mines, which were run by racist Boer capitalists and global conglomerates, did not give them enough protective clothing. Some of the workers were exposed to toxic dust and chemicals as a result.
“The conditions were tough. A lot of our colleagues died because of the conditions.
“All we were equipped with before going down the tunnels were a torch, overalls and gumboots,” said Mr Patson Mukusa, who worked at Blyvooruitzicht Mine in Carletonville, about 80 kilometres from Johannesburg.
He is among the thousands of former mine workers who are expecting a pay-out from former employers after a South African High Court ruled that ex-mine workers who contracted tuberculosis and silicosis in the 1970s and early 80s should be compensated.
Since July 2019, when the South African High Court approved a pay-out of around US$300 million, thousands of senior citizens in Zimbabwe have been waiting with bated breath, hoping for the one last cheque from their former employers.
Many, however, are anxious that the processes are taking long, as the fund manager, Tshiamiso Trust, carries out due diligence before the disbursements.
From Monday to Wednesday, they were being tested at a NSSA Occupational Health Centre in Willowvale, Harare.
Those who have been tested are now waiting for the payouts. Beneficiaries from other countries are receiving as much as R250 000.
It is this possibility of a windfall that pushed Madzibaba Tamlet Chihoko of Dotito, Mount Darwin, to endure a 177-kilometre journey to Harare to get tested.
“I have a relative who was doing some business in Willowvale. He heard of this process on Tuesday and told me. First thing today (Wednesday), I was on the way. There was no way I could miss this opportunity,” he said.
He reminisced on the rich pickings he got during his one-year stint at Leslie Gold Mines in Eastern Transvaal.
“When I left South Africa in 1978, I came back and bought cattle, built my home. I am happy that I set up a foundation for my family using the money I got from the mines. As soon as I get the money, I am going to buy cattle. I am 63 years old now, but my kraal is empty, a disease came and ravaged the herd. This money will help us pick up the pieces,” said Madzibaba Chihoko.
The vetting process saw 231 direct claimants and 45 dependants coming forward.
Ms Tracy Mukwesha was among the few women — all of them daughters or spouses of late or indisposed ex-Wenela workers — who made the crowd.
For her, the memory of her husband, Ernest Vambe, going to Wenela is filled with regret.
“My husband went to South Africa for mining in 1980 under West Driefontein Gold Mining Company. The same year we got married. He sent a letter informing me that he was going to come back and take me with him after settling,” she said.
However, their plan to use savings to start a new life was dealt a blow.
“On May 5, 1981, we received a message through a telegram that he died after the mine collapsed. We had plans for the future and a lot of excitement, but it was all cut short,” she said.
Her husband was buried in South Africa. Soon after her husband’s death, she delivered a son she named George.
“It was tough raising him on my own. Going to Cape Town, being a house helper in order to take care of my child wasn’t easy and up until now I am still alone. I couldn’t move on to be with someone else because my heart was shattered,” she said.
She hopes the money can assist her build a home for her family and start a business.
It is an opportunity to get rich that has given some fraudsters a window of opportunity.
On Thursday, Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Professor Paul Mavima sounded a warning against some organisations who are now purporting to represent the interests of ex-Wenela workers.
“The ministry has noted with concern that some people as well as associations are charging as much as US$90 for registration. Government wishes to inform the general public and the ex-Wenela workers that the registration and testing of ex-Wenela workers is being done free of charge by Government and NSSA officials,” said Minister Mavima.
One of the organisations accused of this practice is the Ex-Wenela Miners Association of Zimbabwe.
It appears it has two men at the helm. On one end is a man identified as Mr Rodgers Munakamwe, whose business cards say he is the president of the Ex-Wenela Miners Association of Zimbabwe.
He told The Sunday Mail that the US$90 charge was justified.
“What we do as an association is we ask for money from our members so that we are able to travel to South Africa to process the papers.”
He has a flier which charges US$10 for scans and US$2 for registration, services which are being given for free by the Government and NSSA.
Other additional charges are inscribed “flight going for US$20 per person, attorney US$2, lawyer US$10”.
There is also Mr Lungelwe Mkwananzi, Ex-Wenela Miners Association of Zimbabwe president, who has been the face of the struggle since as far back as 2019.
He remained coy when asked to clarify the issue and give his organisation’s position on Mr Munakamwe.
“The association has branch leaders and Munakamwe is one of them. But I don’t want to say much on this issue until I sit down with my colleagues to discuss. This is the third time we are dealing with a case of this nature, this time around we want to sit down and find a lasting solution,” Mkwananzi said.
Estimates are putting the number of ex-Wenela workers at around 10 000.
Despite the widespread excitement, not everyone will benefit, but only those who will be credibly proven that they indeed contracted either TB or silicosis.
About 58 mines agreed to be part of the Tshiamiso Trust financiers.
For one to be able to get the money, they need to have worked for a qualifying mine.
Potential beneficiaries hope that the Government’s involvement will bring progress to a process that appears to be stalling.