South African besieged with sickness won’t give up fight for worker compensation
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Alfred Manyanyata Sepepe is 66 now. And he is back in the hospital. This time it is lung cancer. Last time it was testicular cancer. On April 9 Sepepe asked to be discharged from the hospital so that he could again go to the Public Protector’s office, a place he has been hundreds of times before. For, while Sepepe has been struggling to stay alive himself for more than 18 years, he has dedicated that time to keeping something else alive — a compensation bid for the former workers at South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear research center.
Today, the work at Pelindaba focuses on the production of medical isotopes. But Pelindaba was also the site where South Africa secretly developed its nuclear weapons, until the country renounced nuclear weapons and began dismantling its bombs in 1989. At the time it had six completed atomic bombs and one still under construction. The work was done under the guise of “peaceful” nuclear energy development.
Sepepe, who came from the nearby town of Atteridgeville that supplied much of the Pelindaba workforce, began working in the nuclear complex in 1989, first at the neighboring Advena nuclear laboratory and then at Pelindaba, managed by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA.) He worked as a cleaner, operated machinery and poured chemicals. And he noticed, almost immediately, that there was no protective gear offered to the Pelindaba workers.
“I asked my foreman why we had to work with chemicals,” Sepepe recalled. “And he chased me out.”
But Sepepe did not go away. By the late 1990s he noticed his own health starting to deteriorate. And he was not alone. But the company, Sepepe said, refused to let the increasing numbers of sick workers see independent doctors. Sepepe was able to, and in 1998 he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
The illness had a devastating effect on his personal and professional life. After surgery, he could no longer have children. He lost his wife and family. He was laid off because of his repeated ill health. He became homeless, jobless and penniless. “The whole experience has been traumatic for me,” Sepepe said. “It has turned my life upside down.” But he was not to be defeated.
Instead, despite a limited education, Sepepe emerged as the most persistent and forthright voice for the sick workers of Pelindaba. When the South African NGO, Earthlife Africa, secured funding from the Heinrich Böll Foundation for a limited occupational health study of former NECSA workers, Sepepe became a the liaison between Dr. Murray Coombs, who led the study, and the ex-workers. The findings were used as the basis on which to seek compensation for sickened — and sometimes by then deceased — former NECSA workers.
Sepepe has also had consistent support from the Pretoria-based Pelindaba Working Group, which campaigns for transparency and accountability from the operators at the Pelindaba nuclear complex. PWG has sought to assist Sepepe, not only in exposing the plight of Pelindaba’s workers, but also that of a growing number of residents in the area who have succumbed to cancer and other illnesses. It was the PWG who brought Sepepe to more international attention, which contributed to his winning the Nuclear-Free Future Award for Special Recognition in 2016 when the event was held in Johannesburg.
The Coombs investigation was precipitated by the death, in 2001, of Pelindaba worker, Victor Motha. Motha, just 21 at the time, had inhaled a fluoride gas used to process uranium for fuel in nuclear reactors. He came home complaining of nausea and a burning in his throat and chest, and died in hospital that night.
By 2007, concern about Pelindaba’s ex-workforce, many of whom were dying off, precipitated a parliamentary committee hearing in Cape Town. Sepepe was one who spoke. So did Harold Daniels, whose father, who shared his name, had died in 1997 of lung and brain cancer.
In 1996, the elder Daniels, a security guard, had help to extinguish a radiation fire at Pelindaba. As soon as he fell sick, NECSA asked Daniels to leave, offering him a compensation payoff. “They knew he was going to die and they didn’t want him working for them,” his son told IOL in a 2016 article. “I remember how tragic and hard it was, visiting him in hospital as he lay there dying.”
Despite promises by politicians, no action was taken by the South African government. Since 2010, the case has rested with the Public Protector’s office, which seems to operate much as Charles Dickens described the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit:
“Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving — HOW NOT TO DO IT.”
It is in this tangled web that Sepepe still finds himself eight years in, while the Public Protector parades a rotating cast of personnel before him, none of whom appear willing to move the case to resolution. But there is one thing they can count on. As long as he is alive, Alfred Manyanyata Sepepe will be at their door, demanding an answer. Even if he is the last man standing left to make the case.