Amidst the somber news of the passing of Alfred Manyanyata Sepepe – a champion for human rights for those who suffer as a result of South Africa’s nuclear industry – a blunt truth emerges: Alfred and many of his colleagues before him, were failed by a system that should have protected them.

Alfred succumbed to cancer without receiving the medical compensation or treatment he desperately needed. Alfred tirelessly championed justice for medically compromised workers at Pelindaba, and his story unveils a harrowing narrative of neglect and injustice within the industry. Despite his efforts and those of his colleagues, accountability (for the pain and suffering caused) remains out of reach. As his comrades vow to carry on his fight, questions linger about the obscure and unaccountable nature of South Africa’s nuclear sector. Alfred’s legacy is not just one of struggle, but also a rallying cry for systemic change.

See the press release below, submitted by the Pelindaba Working Group on 11 April 2024, for more information.

ALFRED MANYANYATA SEPEPE – Failed By An Entire System Meant To Help Nuclear Workers

Former well-known nuclear industry worker Alfred Manyanyata Sepepe who championed justice to the very end of his life for scores for medically compromised workers at Pelindaba succumbed to cancer at his home in Atteridgeville outside Pretoria on Monday (8 April 2024). He will be buried at Lotus Gardens cemetery near Atteridgeville on Saturday morning at 8am.

Unable to afford medical treatment, let alone nuclear medicine produced by the industry he once served resulting in testicular cancer doctors confirmed was due to radiation, Alfred died penniless, without medical compensation or adequate medical treatment like many colleagues before him. But his colleagues have vowed continue Alfred’s quest to obtain medical compensation from South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA).

Alfred worked with chemicals and as a machine operator in the nuclear industry from which he was retrenched when his health deteriorated in the early 2000s and he was castrated. He came out of remission recently but despite declining health the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) still denied him his medical reports.

In 2016 Alfred was recognised for an international Nuclear-Free Future Award (NFFA) for his unswerving quest to obtain medical compensation for several hundred occupationally debilitated and lethally injured former and current NECSA workers who were previously oblivious to nuclear dangers and continued to seek his help.

Nationally, however, Alfred was failed and even vilified by a multitude of mandated officials and institutions he turned to for help after the medical expert Dr Murray Coombs in 2006 found many nuclear workers urgently required further tests to obtain medical compensation. Many of their medical records—in an industry with legislated medical surveillance —were incomplete, non-existent, or had been tampered with.  None of them had more tests or received compensation.

Coombs’ report concluded a possible “5100 employees in (NECSA’s) 30,000 historic pool” had occupational disease and noted: “it is clear from the findings that an investigation into occupational disease for ex Necsa workers is valid and necessary” adding that “NECSA should own up to their responsibilities.”

In 2007 Alfred led a delegation to testify before Parliament on the workers’ plight but when the Committee failed to make good on promises he turned to the Public Protector’s (PP) office. Alfred was again failed, this time by the disgraced former PP, Busiswe Mkhwebane, who upended earlier findings of her predecessor’s team and released a fatally flawed report prominent Hatfield lawyers were confident could be overturned in court.

However, due to political pressure the lawyers dropped the case which had already been lodged in the High Court after securing lucrative legal work for the same political party Mkhwebane later joined. At the time of his death, Alfred’s complaint before the Legal Practices Council (LPC) against the lawyers remains unresolved after several years.

Alfred’s group described Mkhwebane’s report as perpetuating “a white-wash obfuscation” of their complaint. Amplifying this, when Alfred’s cancer returned the NNR denied him access to medical results contentiously undertaken for the PP under NNR oversight by its crony nuclear firm MZANSI rather than by truly independent medical health experts.

Due to the political expediency, officials across the board seeking nuclear expansion have had no political will to assist Alfred or those he led.  Not because their claims lacked legitimacy but because the industry they worked in and where their health was occupationally destroyed represented and still represents an inconvenient political hot-potato involving a vast network of politically vested interests and agendas.

Notwithstanding those mentioned above, Alfred and his group were fobbed off by not only NECSA and the co-opted NNR, but also the Compensation Commissioner and various government departments, unions loyal to the governing party, successive Presidents and Energy Ministers, some of whom became sympathetic and were then replaced. The Energy Minister in early 2000s promised to “leave no stone unturned” but like all after her turned a blind eye.

Having attended countless funerals over two decades of his former Pelindaba colleagues who died from occupationally-related illnesses, Alfred’s worst fear was that “NECSA hopes we’ll all die and that the problem will go away”.

However, some of his surviving former colleagues have vowed to continue fighting the system that stole their health and denied them medical compensation.

South Africa has yet to implement policy changes that recognise radiation and biohazards biology as a public health issue and currently has no truly independent medical experts in this field.

Although laws that protect nuclear workers exist, the nuclear industry has remained shrouded in secrecy, non-accountable, non-transparent and untouchable and largely operates above the law.

Alfred is survived by his three children.

Issued by the Pelindaba Working Group.

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