Like other widows of South African mine workers, Jane Anele was doubly wronged by the industry. The 58-year-old lost her husband to coal mining a decade ago, and his employer never paid the family his dues.

“My husband died of lung disease from digging coal for 20 years, and his pension has never been paid because the coal mine went defunct,” she said. “We are too poor to hire lawyers who charged us 90,000 South African rand ($4,500 USD) to pursue those who owe us. We are not that educated to start with, let alone dig for historical pensions claims and fill complex forms.”

Her last hope was to turn to the church.

In a country where lawyers, corporate human resources departments, and police are viewed with suspicion, Christian leaders are stepping in to advocate for South Africa’s discarded Black mine laborers and their families.

“We stand with Black miners and their descendants for a lifetime. I have attracted a lot of enemies and been vilified in government and mining industry circles over my stance,” said prophet Paseka Mboro, a controversial charismatic Pentecostal minister. “These gold and platinum mine corps are listed on the stock exchanges, and some of their ex-laborers sometimes can’t afford [pain relievers] in old age.”

South Africa’s mines took off in the late 1800s when imperialist mining magnate Cecil Rhodes and the Oppenheimer family struck gold and discovered diamond riches. For over a century, the country built its famous gold, platinum, and coal mine wealth on the sweat of migrant Black laborers.

Now, as the industry continues its slow decline, workers are suffering, aging in poverty, and dying from conditions contracted in the mines. And the job is getting more dangerous and less stable.

Tapiwa Nhachi, a former social scientist with the regional Centre for Natural Resources, said getting justice for migrant workers is a nightmare. Some were brought from neighboring African countries in the 1960s to work without IDs and have since passed on.

“I worked for Optimum Coal Mine for five years, got injured from a rock fall underground, was laid off with two months’ salary, and disability benefits haven’t been paid to date,” 60-year-old Wandile Mashaba told CT. “The mine has since gone into bankruptcy, changed hands, and my file is missing.”

Thousands of shortchanged Black mine workers in South Africa, considered one of the most financially unequal countries in the world, can’t afford claims lawyers and rely on Christian advocates like Mboro to help.

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Their willingness to confront the big mining corporations draws from biblical calls for justice and Scripture’s divine condemnations of “those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Mal. 3:5).

“The pastors have been super helpful,” said Nolwazi Makhulu. “It’s through their constant, brave engagement with mine owners that my late husband’s R400,000 [$20,000 USD] disability and pension dues were finally settled from a trust fund though the diamond mine has long gone defunct.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the $24 billion mining sector in South Africa “is waning under the pressure of violent crime, growing costs and regulatory uncertainty, as well as tapped-out mines.” The newspaper cited falling employment numbers and production, and an increase in violent labor disputes and deaths.

For example, in October and December last year, disgruntled mine workers took hundreds of fellow miners hostage kilometers under the earth as a way of forcing concessions from big-corporation mine owners.

“In the wake of the decline, violent tactics and injustice remain,” said Thula Maseko, a National Union of Mineworkers branch coordinator.

When police and corporate mine owners fear or refuse to negotiate in hostage situations, it’s once again churches that step in. Drawing from decades of trust, Christian leaders serve as peace negotiators to stop potential bloodshed, Maseko said.

Large mining companies, corporate lawyers, courts, and compromised trade unions are hardly trusted by thousands of Black mine laborers in South Africa, says Tito Dingane, an activist pastor in the Zion Christian Church, a large African-initiated denomination with one million members across South Africa.

“It’s only through our intervention and negotiations as the Zion Christian Church that recently three widows of mine workers were paid modest compensation for their deaths,” he said. “[Mining officials] had dismissed their claim, saying their husbands were bogus miners.”

For decades, churches have sued mine owners on behalf of workers with lung disease. Last year, the Catholic church vowed a class-action lawsuit against BHP, the giant Australian copper miner, on behalf of “17 current and former mine workers, who came to the Catholic Church for help after contracting incurable coal workers’ pneumoconiosis,” an industry news article reported.

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“The bishops are our … last hope,” said Fazela Ntoto, a former gold miner. His hard-fought pension claim was fleeced by trust lawyers taking advantage of his illiteracy, Ntoto said. His pastors took up his cause, however, and worked to successfully recover what he was owed.

Father Stan Muyebe, director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the church is called to join in the “cries for justice” and offer help.

“The church in South Africa has been challenged to become a Samaritan church,” he said, “hearing the cries of the sick ex-miners and seeing the suffering face of Christ in and through the one who once said to us, I was sick and you visited me.”

Nyasha Bhobo is a freelance journalist in Zimbabwe who covers stories across southern Africa.

[ This article is also available in Fran├žais. ]

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