South Africa – Miners Pursue Class Action

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Former and current gold miners are given the go-ahead to pursue class action for health damages.

The legal action is likely to be taken against numerous mining companies according to the Johannesburg high court who made the ruling on May 13th; if it goes ahead it is likely to be the largest class action suit in South African history.

The miners claim that they contracted silicosis, an incurable lung disease, from working in the mines; the defendants include Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Sibanye Gold and African Rainbow Minerals.

Silicosis is a disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust in gold bearing rocks and can lead to breathing complications and tuberculosis, reported BBC News Online.

In a separate case in South Africa earlier this year, about 4,400 silicosis victims and their families won a US$32m settlement from Anglo American and AngloGold Ashanti.

Gold mining has played a central role in South Africa’s history, however Gold’s contribution to GDP has declined in recent years to around 1.7% of GDP in 2013, according to Statistics South Africa. During the apartheid era insufficient labour health and labour practices contributed to the spread of work-related diseases.

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Gold Mine S.Africa C.1890-1923 – CC

The stories of the miners were revealed during the court proceedings; Bongani Nkala who was leading the suit said that “blasting underground created a lot of dust and much of it remained in the workplace, even after the walls were sprayed with water…I was never provided with any respiratory equipment, ” reported AFP.

Another miner, Bangumzi Bennet Balakazi, started in the mines aged 21 in 1974 and worked until 1999, he now has both tuberculosis and silicosis. He said, “my daily routine started at 3.00am in the morning, when we are woken by a siren…soon after the blasting had finished, miners returned to the blasted area almost immediately…the white miners only returned to the blast area after most of the dust had settled.”

Now after the court ruling, around 500,000 current and former miners are open to sue around 30 companies for damages, in a case that dates back many decades. Former miner Vuyani Bwadube, said, “today’s judgement is most welcome… the companies do not have time for us. Even today they don’t care,” he said.

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The judge ruled that mining work dating back to 1965 was covered under the ruling and that the families of dead workers could join the suit. Some of the health studies found that levels of silicosis in South African gold mines at 22-36%, some of the highest rates in the world.

The mining companies issued a statement saying they were studying the court’s decision. One company, Gold Fields had called the case a “generic attack” on the mining industry and Harmony Gold claimed that class action would be “unimaginably cumbersome, costly, time consuming and thus inconvenient.”

The companies may seek an out-of-court settlement and have said they are interested in setting up a “legacy fund” to distribute money. According to independent journalists network GroundUp, the mining companies implicated are appealing the court judgement, although lawyers for the mineworkers stated, “we think this is an attempt to frustrate and delay.”

(AFP 13/5 2016; BBC News Online 13/5)

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

South Africa – Pay–out To Sick Ex-Miners
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.53, Issue.3, Pp. 21222A

SOUTH AFRICA: ‘Distracting’Political Noise
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.53, Issue.3, Pp.21206A–21206C

Southern Africa – Fighting TB Among Miners
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.53, Issue.2, Pp.21186C

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