Apartheid’s Nuclear Shame

Mandy de Waal and Jon Pienaar
Sipho Jaca wants compensation for the time he worked in apartheid’s secret nuclear programme. Photo by Jon Pienaar.
Mandy de Waal and Jon Pienaar

During apartheid, a nuclear weapons programme at Pelindaba used workers from nearby settlements. Decades have gone by and millions of rands have been spent on investigations, yet questions remain and hundreds of workers who claim to have become ill after exposure to hazardous material are still fighting for compensation.

Travel west from Pretoria on the old Church St (now WF Nkomo St) for about 25km and you’ll get to a place called Pelindaba on a bleak stretch of earth near Hartbeespoort Dam. It was here that the apartheid government built its main nuclear research centre, where uranium was enriched for manufacturing nuclear bombs, and nuclear fuel was generated for power plants and research materials. But before you get to Pelindaba, on the left, there’s the sprawling township of Atteridgeville, which was named after Black Sash activist Myrtle Patricia Atteridge. The place was established soon after 1939 when Ms Atteridge—chairperson of the Native Advisory Board at the time—lobbied for government to build a place for ‘blacks’ who were existing in appalling conditions in Marabastad and surrounds. Back then places like Marabastad existed as little more than temporary labour camps.

Ten years after Atteridgeville was erected with its brick houses, water, electricity and sewerage system, a watershed general election in 1948 hurtled South Africa ever closer to formalised apartheid.

Former workers claim exposure

It’s a drizzly day ahead of the 2014 elections. We have arranged to meet Alfred Sepepe, a man who claims that in the 1990s he was illegally exposed to nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals while working for the Uranium Enrichment Corporation of SA (UCOR). Highly enriched uranium is used to make nuclear weapons.


Alfred Sepepe, now an activist, says he was illegally exposed to nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals while working for the Uranium Enrichment Corporation of SA. Photo by Jon Pienaar.

Decades after working in apartheid’s nuclear programme, Sepepe is now an activist organising for himself and hundreds of others to try and get compensation from the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa). This has been a long, hard fight, and many of Sepepe’s comrades have died along the way from illnesses. The case now sits at the office of the Public Protector, the only person that these former nuclear workers think can help them.

When we arrive at the KFC in a bustling strip mall in Atteridgeville, we are met by Sepepe and 30 others. These are workers who claim to be sick from exposure to nuclear materials, or spouses and children of those who’ve passed on. One man pulls up the legs of his trousers to expose skin covered in what looks like a mutation of blisters and sores. He says his legs have been like this for many years.


Steven Maleka shows the condition of his leg. Photo by Jon Pienaar.

This man’s name is Steven Maleka, and he worked for the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) at Pelindaba from 1980 to 2004. Like the others with him, he’s brought his old security cards and records that show he was employed by apartheid’s nuclear programme. He recalls being assigned to places called ‘Area 28’ and ‘Mini 2’, where he worked in buildings called ‘Cheetah’ and ‘Mamba’. Every day, he says, he had to wade in ‘red water’, and although he was given wellington boots, the ‘red water’ would often splash up and into the boots, soaking his skin.

As early as 1983, he started experiencing swelling in his limbs, and he was sent to Medforum. Up until his discharge in 2004, he was in and out of medical facilities – for the last two or three years he has had to visit the local Kalapo Clinic every day. He complains of heart palpitations, chronic leg pain, bad digestion and weakness.

South Africa’s secret nuclear programme goes back to the forties when the Atomic Energy Corporation was formed and subsequently did research with the ironically named US ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme. It was the mid-seventies, after BJ Vorster became Prime Minister and had re-imagined SA as a state under siege. Amid strikes, mass protests, covert ‘terrorist’ activities and revolutions in neighbouring countries, Vorster’s SA was a country at war. The apartheid statesman wanted an ‘iron fist’ at the ready for his defence. He wanted an atom bomb - the same kind the US let loose on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

SA’s nuclear weapons project was started by the AEC, but Armscor soon took over and bombs were built at the top secret facility at Kentron Circle, later called Advena, some four kilometres from Atteridgeville. Sepepe wasn’t the only member of his family who worked in the programme.

“My father’s name was John Sepepe,” says the elder son, adding, “He worked for the Atomic Energy Corporation for years, but got sick and died. I wasn’t living in Atteridgeville at that time so my youngest brother went to replace my father. Soon after this I got a telegram and I joined this work too.”

After working at Advena, Sepepe was moved to Pelindaba. “There I saw for myself that the place was bad. I saw how they worked with all of these chemicals. I asked my foreman why we had to work with chemicals, and why we didn’t wear protection. He chased me out,” says Sepepe of his early years at Pelindaba in the nineties.

Vorster’s atomic weapons programme was disarmed soon after De Klerk came into power in 1989. This was the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ – nuclear disarmament was high on the world agenda.

Greenpeace states in its report ‘The True Cost of Nuclear Power in South Africa’ that “De Klerk ordered that 12,000 pages of documentation covering the project should be shredded, protecting the hundreds of people involved in the programme.” Production of highly enriched (weapons-grade) uranium was stopped, and the facility to produce it (known as Y-plant or Valindaba) was dismantled. In the late nineties, the AEC was restructured as Necsa, and the focus of SA’s nuclear programme became nuclear energy and medical research.

Back to Sepepe who says he was repeatedly shifted between different sections while working at Pelindaba where he did cleaning, operated machinery and poured chemicals into machines. He says he repeatedly challenged his superiors about working with the chemicals without protective gear. He says that in the late nineties his health began to deteriorate. “I started getting sick. More and more sick. When I went to urinate I would see that the colour and smell of my urine was different,” he says.

After seeing a private medical practitioner, a Dr Marivate in Soshanguve, Sepepe was transferred to a specialist at a private clinic near Morula Sun in Ga-Rankuwa in 1999. “I had an operation there. They asked me how many children I had. I told them I had three children. They said to me that I would not have any more children,” says Sepepe who was advised by doctors to have his testicles removed for the sake of his health.

After returning to work following the surgery, Sepepe lost his job. “I was retrenched early in January 2000. The money that I got with my retrenchment was about R15,000 but I still lost my house,” he says.

Sepepe is one of some 500 former workers who united with anti-nuclear activists, Earthlife Africa, at the turn of the century, to get help for illnesses they say were caused by working in the apartheid government’s nuclear programme.

Most of the workers claimed to have been retrenched by Necsa after showing signs of being ill, or after complaining of disorders like chronic coughing. Sepepe and others said that they walked off Pelindaba with nothing more than their last month’s pay in their hands.

Necsa responds

In an email response to our enquiries, Necsa stated that there was a period of retrenchment when certain plants were closed, but stated that in those cases all employees received retrenchment packages. The email goes on to state: “… it is totally untrue that Mr Sapepe (sic) and others were retrenched, merely because they were ill. The nuclear industry in South Africa adheres to the highest safety and occupational health standards and is closely regulated by both international and national regulators.”

Earthlife Africa provided funds for 208 of the workers to be examined by a team of medical professionals led by Dr Murray Coombs, an occupational health expert. Coombs wasn’t able to examine all 500 of the ex-Necsa workers because there wasn’t enough funding to pay for this.

The medical survey commenced in 2004 and was completed two years later. As part of the study, Coombs was granted permission by the workers to obtain their medical files from Necsa. But, he says, the files were embarrassingly incomplete: records were missing and in 62 cases, entire files were missing. In the time it took for the survey to be completed, Coombs says that 15 of the 208 workers had died.

Necsa say that they complied with the requests by obtaining the files from the South African History Archive (SAHA), and the only files they were unable to deliver were for 54 persons “unknown to have been employed by Necsa.”

After releasing his report in September 2006, Coombs told The Star: “The occupational diseases rate (at Necsa) is at 50 percent, which is heavy. It is the highest I have seen. The norm is about 10 percent to 12 percent.”

Coombs’ survey showed that 45% of the workers in the study had been exposed for ten years or more to radiation and/or chemicals, and that each of the former Necsa employees he examined had at least one disease. Coombs’ research showed eight confirmed cases of radiation exposure, and 72 cases where probable occupational diseases were found. The survey concluded that of the 208 people examined, 40% were suffering from illnesses that were probably occupation related.

Necsa maintains that “not one former employee presented symptoms that relate to the adverse effects of exposure to radiation. The investigation found ten noise induced hearing loss cases. […] There were also two cases of exposure to hazardous chemical substances. These cases have all been submitted to the Compensation Commissioner for consideration.”

Coombs told The Star that follow-up medical examinations had not been done on the workers once they had left Necsa. “The radiation and chemical industries should follow people through to their deaths,” the doctor said.

Necsa points out that the majority of workers investigated were between the ages of 41 and 60. They argue that even Coombs, in his report, noted that “this group will therefore have the potential for more age related diseases. Most of these groups consist of retrenchees and their financial burden may have allowed for a high self-selection.”

Necsa says that the statistics may be skewed, because Earthlife Africa advertised in the townships near Pelindaba, and “in so doing, created the hope in a group of people that are financially burdened (more so, according to Dr Coombs, due to naturally impaired health), that they will be compensated. This is supported by the fact that a number of the persons who claimed to have worked at Necsa had in actual fact never been employed there.”

According to the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act 130 of 1993, workers who contract a disease because of their work can get compensation from the Compensation Commission. In addition, nuclear facilities must be licensed according to the National Nuclear Regulator Act No 47 of 1999, which stipulates compliance to specific safety codes.

The effects of exposure to dangerous levels of radiation are insidious, and long-lasting. DNA can be damaged, causing a range of illnesses, from organ dysfunction to cancer. Even at relatively small levels, exposure to a radioactive substance like enriched uranium harms the body at a cellular level, and symptoms may only emerge after years.

Parliament investigates

In his report on the 208 ex-Necsa workers, Coombs concludes: “It is clear from the findings that an investigation into occupational disease for ex-Necsa workers is valid and necessary. The burden of disease, both occupational and non-occupational also indicates the need for further occupational disease, economical and social studies.”

In addition, Coombs notes that there may be an even “larger group of ex-employees with radiation related illness. These employees are covered by pensions and medical insurance and are reluctant to come forward to join the study.”

Media interest in the case was high, and off the back of activist action and worker protests, Parliament decided that Necsa had to launch an investigation, which it commenced in June 2005, headed by independent radiation expert, physicist Mogwera Khoathane. Fifty workers made themselves available for these tests, but the scientist was unable to find one former employee who “presented symptoms that relate to the adverse effects of radiation.” It is unclear whether these were the same people who participated in Coombs’ study.

In presenting the report, Necsa CEO Rob Adam told parliament: “Necsa can categorically state that not one of these former employees presents symptoms that relate to the adverse effects of radiation.”

In 2007, an intervention by the Legal Resources Centre led to a delegation of Pelindaba workers testifying before a Parliamentary committee, whom Greenpeace reports were “shocked” at what they heard. The committee chairperson promised to forward their complaint to the Human Rights Commission. Other promises were made, but years later the LRC withdrew its support due to a lack of funds.

Workers tell GroundUp their stories

Back in Atteridgeville, the ex-workers and dependants of those who have died wait patiently to tell their stories. They have all brought photostats of ID-cards used to enter Pelindaba, or work records, and doctors’ reports.

Martha Masilela (58) speaks about working at the site for five years, and how she swept “white powder” off the floor with her legs exposed to this substance in 1991. She has now been diagnosed with skin cancer, she says. At the clinic she is given camphor cream to soothe the itching, but says it doesn’t seem to help much.

Joseph Lebepe (63) was a handyman from 1982 until 1985. He has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive airway disease. His eyesight is failing, and he is extremely thin – he says he was much burlier in years gone by; now he walks slowly, and with a stoop – he is too weak to walk far.

Anna Maponya (60) talks about the time she worked at Pelindaba as a cleaner in the early nineties, through contractors Pritchard Cleaning Services. “They gave me urine and blood specimens to wash out at the Necsa clinic. They didn’t even give me gloves. I wore no gloves or no mask. I washed those utensils with my bare hands,” she says, adding: “When I asked the doctor, a Dr Foster, why he wore gloves and I didn’t, he just ignored me.”

Lydia Malatji speaks about her husband who worked for AEC and died when he was 77. “He was always complaining about the chemicals they used there. He said these were the chemicals they use when it is war. He started to cough up blood, and got sick. His left foot was swollen and turned black.” Malatji went to Kalafong, a public hospital on the outskirts of Pretoria three times. On the third occasion, he didn’t come home.

Margaret Satshane tells a similar story, of her late husband, Michael, who became seriously ill in 1992 with a severe lung infection. He died in 2010.

April Frans Maluleka (65) was appointed as a gardener at Pelindaba in 1997, and worked all over the complex, removing ‘rubbish’ and spraying weed killer. In 1998 he began to get sick – weakness in his limbs, a headache that kept him awake at night. “It felt like it was not my body,” he says, and recalls that the doctor at the hospital was “afraid to say what was wrong.”

Elias Mahlangu died of esophageal cancer when he was 54. He was retrenched by AEC in 1990 after working for them for 14 years. By mid-1992 he was dead.

Welani Mahlangu (66) worked in ‘Area Y’ at Valindaba (aka ‘Pelindaba East’), from 1990 to 1994. Part of his job involved “grinding aluminium” and combining chemicals, including one that was identified as an acid. In 1996 he started experiencing pains in his arms. Now his eyes are failing and he has kidney pain, a chronic cough, heart palpitations and general weakness.

Mkomasi Mkhondo worked in the ‘Rooi Gebied’ - the Red Area - as a cleaner. He wore standard blue overalls, shoes and gloves. He recalls his foreman, a Mr Brink, telling him: “Working here, after 20 years your body won’t be the same.”

Many complain of deteriorating vision, digestive problems, kidney pain, high blood pressure, weakness and palpitations. Surviving relatives tell of painful deaths in hospital, of kidney failure, or lung disease.

Appeal to the Public Protector

The only hope now for the former employees of the apartheid government’s secretive nuclear programme is SA’s Public Protector. “We handed the case over to the Public Protector (in 2010) because we had run out of any avenues to make any change,” says Judith Taylor of Earthlife Africa. “Basically these people are being forgotten because they are too poor to be top-of-mind, which appals me,” says Taylor.

Coombs confirmed that he had filled in a COID (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases) form, which he sent to Earthlife Africa, and last year the same documents were sent to the Public Protector’s office, on their request. Coombs believes that Necsa’s investigation is questionable, and he says, “It is not the prerogative of an employer to decide whether an illness was caused by exposure at the workplace. This is done by the Compensation Commissioner.”

“Millions were earmarked by Parliament for an investigation on the matter, but what happened to this report? Necsa is a government organisation and it appears that government makes the rules on nuclear issues that everyone must adhere to, but doesn’t adhere to these itself. Why have we never seen the results of the Necsa report on this matter? That government report seems to have just disappeared,” Coombs says.

Despite having spent R3.5-million of taxpayers’ money on an independent investigation, Necsa’s official stance now is that any compensation should be paid out of the fund it contributes to in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA). This fund is administered by the Compensation Commissioner who is supposed to handle all claims for occupational injuries and diseases.

According to Necsa’s spokesperson, “The decision (for compensation) lies solely with the Commissioner and not with Necsa.”

In the written reply, Necsa states: “Since its inception in the late 60s, Necsa has successfully applied international standards and procedures to protect its radiation workers. Necsa’s employees were, and still are, subjected to extremely comprehensive medical and radiation exposure surveillance. Necsa’s health care programme is, furthermore, licensed by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR).”

At the Public Protector’s office, spokesperson Kgalalelo Masibi says the four-year old report has been completed, but she is unable to release it to the public as it is still receiving legal scrutiny.

Questions remain

Millions of rands have gone to Earthlife Africa, the Legal Resource Centre, doctors and experts. The results are conflicting, and it is still unclear whether even a few, if any, of these claimants will receive compensation. The wheels of justice have turned very slowly indeed for these people who now go to the funerals of those within their group who have died.

Sepepe was promised an outcome by the Public Protector, but he and his group of former Necsa workers are still waiting. Every week or two, there is another funeral for one of his co-workers. He laments: “Eish. These people are dying. My big fear is that I will die too. Who will help all these people then? What will they do then?”

Read more: The True Cost of Nuclear Power in South Africa - A report by Greenpeace

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TOPICS:  Health

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