Mapeitu is MDR-TB-positive. "I am sure I was infected while working in Guguletu, a township in Cape Town where I used to live and where I spent all day with infected people—a filthy environment, 20 people using the same bathroom, no sewers, so of course TB proliferates."
Anyone can get TB. Ivan Ross, a 61-year-old fisherman who lives in a wooden shack fell ill in the hold of a boat, where the air is stagnant, the humidity high and cold gets into your bones. Because of the illness, Ross had to stop working; today, he makes a few dollars here and there by charging kids in the township of Hout Bay to play some old ’90s console-based video games he owns. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dalene von Delft, a 33-year-old doctor who lives in the wealthy neighborhood of Somerset West. She, like Mapeitu, was infected on the job. But there’s also one particular community in South Africa that suffers more than others from the disease: the miners.
The Platinum Disease
Step out of Johannesburg and travel just a few miles into the stretch of bare hills in the Gauteng region, and you’ll quickly understand how integral the mines are to South Africa’s economy. They rise like trees in the arid landscape, where trucks and other heavy machinery kick up dust 24 hours a day, obscuring the small, barren work towns where thousands of miners live, often without their families. Miners are the economic backbone of South Africa. With its platinum, coal, manganese, chromium and gold, the mining industry represents one the country’s most important resources, making up 8 percent of its GDP.
For centuries, TB has affected the miners here at higher than normal rates. Today, despite the commitments made by mining companies to guarantee the health and safety of workers, TB continues to claim victims. "The basic problem is that mines are, I dare to say, an environment worse than hell itself,” says Georgina Jephson, a lawyer in Johannesburg. “Temperatures reach [95 to 100 Fahrenheit]. The air is stagnant. There is no ventilation whatsoever, and dust gets into the lungs. And when miners breathe silica dust, coming from the explosions, they are exposed to great risks to their health." The miners typically spend 12 to 14 hours a day in this asphyxiating heat.