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South African miners sickened by working conditions reach settlement in landmark class action lawsuit

in Africa & the Diaspora/Highlights/Politics & Social Justice by

A six-year battle between thousands of South African miners and gold mining companies ended with a historical class action settlement on Wednesday.

Seven mining companies agreed to pay R5 billion (US $400 million) to survivors and dependents of miners who died from silicosis and silico-tuberculosis, lung diseases that were developed from hazardous underground working conditions.

According to All Africa, depending on the stage of claimants’ diseases, payments will range from R50,000 to R500,000; however, Health-E News reported that claims start at R10,000.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Sonke Gender Justice, organizations that involved themselves as amici curiae (friends of the applicants) released a statement after the settlement was announced:

We recognise the courage and determination of the former mineworkers who were applicants and we remember those mineworkers who have passed away in the long struggle for justice. We also recognise the women and family members who shouldered the heavy burden of caring for mineworkers who returned home with silicosis.

We recognise that no compensation can make up for the loss of loved ones, or the loss of one’s health or ability to work. We also note that the amounts that former mineworkers or their surviving family members will be receiving are in no way sufficient compensation. However, we also recognise that insufficient as the settlement may be, it is more than people would have received under the existing compensation framework, and as such we welcome it.

Siporono Phahlam, one of the claimants, said in an affidavit, “We weren’t given masks and were sent in after they [the mining companies] would blast and blast, not even waiting 15 minutes. The doctors say I won’t get better, and all I want is to have my voice heard. I don’t want future miners to suffer like I do.”

Spoor Attorney is one of the firms that represents the miners along with Abrahams Kiewitz Inc and the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), a public interest, human rights organization that has been in litigation with mining companies since 2003.

For years, around 30 companies have been contributing to a fund for payouts that were unavoidable. Now, it is time to cut the check. More lawsuits are expected to follow.

The Price of Gold,”I can’t breathe.”


Chrome and Platinum mine, North Eastern part of South Africa. Miners drill holes in rock for blasting.

Silica dust from mining gold is the main mineral linked to silicosis and the TB found in miners. The incurable lung disease makes it difficult for sufferers to breathe, which can lead to respiratory failure.

Over the years, South Africans have protested the conditions of mines and low wages. However, limited economic opportunities made it difficult for laborers to find other viable means of employment in a country with a long-standing white minority power that surveillanced and terrorized Blacks before and during Apartheid.

The magnitude of the settlement is the first of its kind for a mostly Black-male labor group that has mined for over 150 years for white-owned companies.

“For decades, mining companies knowingly allowed their workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of silica dust,” said TAC and Sonke Gender Justice, on their website.

To educate the public and keep an oral history of the miners, TAC and Sonke Gender Justice began documenting the miners and their families affected through photographs.

Labor in the Mines

South Africa is one of the top gold suppliers in the world. Since gold was discovered in 1886, the hyper-production of the mineral resulted in billions of profit, and established generational wealth for white families. At the same time, the country was left depleted in many ways.

Starting around the 1860s, Black men were forced to work in the South Africa’s mines. First, diamonds were extracted then gold. The dirt was dumped nearby creating man-made mountains of toxic soil. 

The system of oppression enacted during the British and Dutch colonial rule and under Apartheid, exploited Black labor. Often, Blacks toiled in the mines in unsafe environments for long hours. Mining, already a dangerous occupation was at one time, the top-grossing industry in the country that also resulted in a significant amount of deaths.

In a post-Apartheid, the abuses of labor continued. Just before Apartheid was dismantled, a deal brokered between the ruling white minority and Black South African majority was that much of the political power shifted to blacks, while the economic power stayed in the hands of whites. The idea for then Black leaders like Nelson Mandela, was that natural resources would be gradually dispersed more equitably. Today, the country’s natural resources, remain largely in white ownership and control.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who recently passed, vehemently disagreed with the plan until her death last month. Her criticisms with the economic disparities in South Africa were one that contributed to a divide in the country’s majority party, the African National Congress.

Post-Apartheid and Wealth

The legal battles against mining companies that the LRC pursues are one of many efforts to balance a lopsided distribution of wealth.

Last June, South Africa mandated that Black ownership of mines increase from 26 to 30 percent, according to CNBC news.

More government measures are attempting to restore land rights back to Black South Africans who were forced off of their tribal acreage starting in the 1600s by Dutch and British colonialists.

In February, a law was passed to redistribute land back to Blacks. A controversial bill that some say will place the country in an economic decline like Zimbabwe, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said otherwise: “This original sin that was committed when our country was colonized must be resolved in a way that will take South Africa forward.”

While the historic settlement for miners addresses health and safety issues, another problem is sustainable wages and the environmental fallout from the mines. In 2012, a protest by laborers who worked at Lonmin platinum mines revealed that wages for workers ranged from about US $600 to $1500 a month. The average day for a miner is 15 hours.

Old diamond mine. The Big Hole, Kimberley Mine is an open-pit and underground mine in Kimberley, and claimed to be the largest hole excavated by hand. Abandoned mines like these have caused environmental issues and health problems for nearby residents who are mostly Black South Africans.

In addition, the absence of environmental regulations has led to serious environmental damage to land around the mines. Abandoned by mining companies, areas where there are former mines are marked by huge mounds of unearthed dirt and rocks. On windy days, residents in nearby towns become clouded with debris from the mountains. Reports of respiratory issues amongst residents, and elevated levels of metals found in water, fish and farm land are serious concerns. As well, sinkholes have developed.

South Africa has a long road in figuring out the missteps and inequities caused by colonialism and Apartheid. However, recognizing the injustices to a working underclass is a step to remedy a troubling past.

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